I first heard about Up Pompeii when I reviewed Chelmsford 123, another favourite Roman-esque British sitcom, and someone recommended this show in response.
What to expect
A British sitcom dating from 1970, about events two millennia prior. The humour is a product of both time periods: a lot less politically correct then current tastes, but satisfyingly funny.
The events are set in the town of Pompeii, mixing historical elements of anything from Spartacus to the Vesuvius eruption. The main character is Lurcio, the household slave of a local senator and his family. He keeps trying to deliver the prologue, but is constantly interrupted by the current events. He’s also the only one who’s aware he’s in a play, and keep making side jokes to the audience.
This show feels like the love child of Benny Hill and Plautus — which, thinking about it, probably had a lot in common in the way they entertained people and would have loved each other’s work.
What I liked
Loved the humour – I did laugh out loud at least once per episode. I also loved how the show borrows from Plautus – the talkative, clever slave, the idiot master and promiscuous wife, the impossible situations. This was written by people who knew their historical sources and target audience, and married both together in a perfect blending of sitcom goodness.
What to be aware of
Crude jokes, innuendos, and other politically incorrect humour is the norm. I actually consider it a point in favour, in these days of sanitised culture, but your views may differ. Also, don’t expect any historical accuracy. While the show producers visited Pompeii (back in 1969) to create authentic looking sets, the events and people referenced are used merely for background jokes.
There’s a pilot from 1969, two TV series from 1970, and a TV special called Further Up Pompeii from 1975. I watched all, and despite the slight change in actors, they were consistently funny. Then there’s the 1971 movie that followed the series, and a 1991 TV special. I found that the 1971 movie, even though it contains the same jokes, just… not quite working. Perhaps it’s the the almost complete change of cast, perhaps it’s the lack of live audience, but something just didn’t quite gel in the same way that the TV series did. Unfortunately, if you search for “up pompeii” on Amazon, that’s what you’ll find – so be aware of what you’re getting.
Felix adored the show. He regularly goes to see theatrical plays by Plautus, so felt quite at home. The addition of more risque humour just added to the experience, in his view.
A highly recommended show. Even if you didn’t grow up on Benny Hill or the Carry On films, if you like period-sitcoms like Chelmsford 123 or Plebs, you’ll enjoy Up Pompeii as well. Make sure you view the episodes in order: see the British Comedy Guide, or this playlist on YouTube.