Up Pompeii!

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Up Pompeii!
Up Pompeii! opening title.
Written by Talbot Rothwell
Sid Colin
Starring Frankie Howerd
Max Adrian
Elizabeth Larner
Kerry Gardner
Composer(s) Alan Braden
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
No. of episodes 16 (including Further Up Pompeii)
Producer(s) Michael Mills
David Croft
Sydney Lotterby
Running time 30-45 minutes
Original network BBC1, ITV (1991)
Original release 1969 – 1970

Up Pompeii! is a British television comedy series broadcast between 1969 and 1970, starring Frankie Howerd. The first series was written by Talbot Rothwell, a scriptwriter for the Carry On films, and the second series by Rothwell and Sid Colin. Two later specials were transmitted in 1975 and 1991.


Up Pompeii! began as a Comedy Playhouse. Michael Mills and Tom Sloan, from BBC Comedy and Light Entertainment, were visiting the ruins of Pompeii. Since Mills had recently seen Frankie Howerd in the play A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum he casually remarked to Sloan that he half expected Frankie Howerd to appear coming round some corner. Sloan had replied 'Why not?', and the idea for the comedy took root. Talbot Rothwell was invited to write a script and the designer Sally Hulke visited Pompeii with a sketch book and camera to ensure some realism and authenticity in the production's look.[1]

A slight variation of this history of the show's development is related by Bill Cotton who, in an interview with author Graham McCann on 6 June 2000, said that Mills, the BBC's then Head of Comedy, prompted by the plays of Plautus, came up with the idea for the show for Frankie Howerd. Mills had seen the London stage production of the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, set in ancient Rome, and had thought that there might be more mileage to be drawn from Howerd's role as the slave Pseudolus.[2] There were concerns in the Corporation's copyright department that the parallels between the musical and the comedy series might lead to litigation over possible plagiarism, but Rothwell told the BBC that he had seen neither the stage musical nor its film adaptation.[2]


The series is set in ancient Pompeii (pre-eruption). Howerd played a slave, Lurcio (pronounced Lurk-io); the other main characters were Lurcio's bumbling old master, Senator Ludicrus Sextus (initially Max Adrian and then Wallas Eaton), the senator's promiscuous wife Ammonia (Elizabeth Larner), his daughter Erotica (Georgina Moon) and his eternally virginal son Nausius (Kerry Gardner), along with the Cassandra-esque Senna the Soothsayer (Jeanne Mockford) and, in series one, Plautus (Willie Rushton). Guest stars included several actresses from the Carry On film series, including Barbara Windsor, Wendy Richard and Valerie Leon.

The format was little more than a backdrop for an endless series of double entendres and risqué gags. Howerd was central to most of the gags and he started each episode with a prologue — a "to camera" piece that was seldom concluded and rarely had anything to do with the episode's plot.

Thirteen 30-minute episodes were made, in two series (March – May and September – October 1970). In addition there was a pilot episode (1969) and two special episodes entitled Further Up Pompeii, one in 1975 and the other, written by Brian Leveson and Paul Minett, in 1991. The latter sparked speculation that there could be a new series, but Howerd's death in 1992 put an end to any such prospect.

Apart from the change to the actor playing Ludicrus Sextus, there are some differences between the two series of Up Pompeii, the second series using noticeably fewer sets than the previous. This may have been due to the second series being commissioned, filmed and broadcast within four months from the end of the first.

The series was recorded in front of a live studio audience, with whom Howerd interacted, breaking the fourth wall. Also, Howerd made anachronistic comments like "I don't use that glycerine rubbish" or "The BBC told me..." when such things didn't exist in ancient times. Howerd addressed the audience using asides that the other characters couldn't hear (a device that harks back to classical theatre), often commenting on the script, sometimes complaining that everyone else got the good lines.

Films and sequels[edit]

The show inspired three films. The first was also called Up Pompeii (1971) and added such characters as Bilius, Voluptua, Scrubba and Villanus. It ended with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which anachronistically (for AD79) included Nero (who added, "Wait till you see what I've up for Rome!"), and had a brief epilogue in which Howerd played a modern-day museum guide showing the petrified remains of the Pompeiian characters. It was produced by Ned Sherrin and retained only Frankie Howerd from the cast of the original series (Ludicrus, for example, was played by Michael Hordern in the film adaptation, Erotica by Madeline Smith and Nausius by Royce Mills). However, Aubrey Woods appeared in the TV series and the film, playing different roles.

The two sequels were Up the Chastity Belt (1971) and Up the Front (1972), which transported Howerd's servile, cowardly character to Medieval times (as Lurkalot) and World War I (as Private Lurk).

The format of Up Pompeii inspired two later TV series, Whoops Baghdad (1973) and Then Churchill Said to Me (1982), both starring Howerd. The later series was shelved due to the outbreak of the Falklands War and - thought politically insensitive - the series was aired after Howerd's death in 1993.

Stage play[edit]

In 1988, Howerd asked one of his writers, Miles Tredinnick, to work on an updated stage version of Up Pompeii! for a proposed national UK tour, but the play was shelved when Howerd was offered a chance by Larry Gelbart to reprise his role as Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the Piccadilly Theatre in London's West End. The play was eventually revised and updated and had its premiere in Chesterfield[3] in January 2011 and then embarked on a UK tour. Produced and directed by Bruce James, it starred Damian Williams, host of Sky One's Are You Smarter Than A Ten Year Old?, as Lurcio the slave. An acting edition of the play was published by Josef Weinberger Ltd in 2012.

DVD release[edit]

For many years, no complete home video release had been undertaken due to the nature of the videotape master materials. Like many television series of this era, most of the original videotapes were wiped.

In the late 1970s, missing episodes of Up Pompeii! were found in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) archive. Because of the differences in international broadcasting, these copies had been converted to the North American NTSC television standard, and so one chunk of the series remained in its native PAL format, but the majority were found in a poorly-converted (dating long before digital conversion methods) NTSC state.[4] The picture quality of some of the Canadian finds was not high, and so their marketability was severely limited. However, six episodes were released on VHS in 1991 by BBC Video. (These tapes were re-released by Second Sight in 1999, with a small music edit made to the episode featuring Jamus Bondus.)

In 2004—2005, through the success of a group of BBC employees' restoration work on similar NTSC-only episodes of Doctor Who, the BBC decided to convert all their NTSC-only productions (as reclaimed from various international stations) back to their original PAL format using a new computer-controlled process, Reverse Standards Conversion. A PAL-like, higher-quality image resulted in a more stable picture. The new restored masters made their debut on BBC4 in August 2006, and the BBC's DVD distribution arm 2entertain announced a brand new Frankie Howerd Collection in mid-September 2006.

The collection includes not only both original series of Up Pompeii!, but also the 1975 BBC special Further Up Pompeii! (not to be confused with the 1991 ITV special Further Up Pompeii), the already-released Comedy Greats: Frankie Howerd DVD, and another Howerd series along a similar vein, Then Churchill Said to Me.

List of episodes[edit]


Episode Title Original Channel Duration Airdate
Comedy Playhouse: "Up Pompeii!" BBC1 35 minutes 17 September 1969

Series 1[edit]

Episode Title Original Channel Duration Airdate
"Vestal Virgins" BBC1 35 minutes 30 March 1970
"The Ides of March" BBC1 35 minutes 6 April 1970
"The Senator and the Asp" BBC1 35 minutes 13 April 1970
"Britannicus" BBC1 35 minutes 20 April 1970
"The Actors" BBC1 35 minutes 27 April 1970
"Spartacus" BBC1 35 minutes 4 May 1970
"The Love Potion" BBC1 35 minutes 11 May 1970

Series 2[edit]

Episode Title Original Channel Duration Airdate
"The Legacy" BBC1 30 minutes 14 September 1970
"Roman Holiday" BBC1 30 minutes 21 September 1970
"Jamus Bondus" BBC1 30 minutes 28 September 1970
"The Peace Treaty" BBC1 30 minutes 12 October 1970
"Nymphia" BBC1 30 minutes 19 October 1970
"Exodus" BBC1 30 minutes 26 October 1970


Episode Title Original Channel Duration Airdate
Further Up Pompeii! BBC 45 minutes 31 March 1975
Further Up Pompeii ITV/LWT 42 minutes 14 December 1991


Title Studio/
Duration Release
Up Pompeii Anglo-EMI 90 minutes 1971

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Radio Times 25 March 1971
  2. ^ a b Nicholas J. Cull "Infamy! Infamy!" in Sandra R. Joshel (et al., eds.) Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005 [2001], pp.180-81
  3. ^ Derbyshire Times review of Up Pompeii
  4. ^ The lostshows.com website lists 12 of the 17 surviving in the North American standard.

External links[edit]