Sunday, 3 May 2009

256: Up Pompeii

“Up Pompeii”
20 April 1970
Script by Talbot Rothwell
“Britaniccus" “Britannicus”

Lurkio: Frankie Howerd
Briton with beard: Robin Hunter
Briton without beard: Peter Needham

“Up Pompeii” was a sitcom set in ancient Rome. It had its origins in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Forum”, in which Frankie Howerd played a similar role. “Up Pompeii” is a typical 1970s British sitcom, with broad performances. The scripts for the first series were written by Talbot Rothwell, who wrote most of the scripts for the equally broad “Carry On” films. (When I hear someone say something is “broad comedy”, I usually assume that they really mean that it doesn’t aspire to any great heights). The shows are a collection of double entendres, riske gags, and slapstick humour, held together by the central performance of Howerd as the slave Lurkio.

In this episode, Lurkio ends up accompanying the Roman army to put down a revolt in Britain, and ends up associating with some “camp-followers” (ho-ho). Curiously, this inverts the usual stereotyopes, making the Britons rather than the Romans gay. But then in the world of “Up Pompeii”, the Romans are us, in all our shabby, lustful hypocritical ways, so in the context of this series the Britons can be the “other.” And making them gay also plays off usual primitive savage connotations too.

There is a practical consideration in the “gay performances” of the two Britons. How to distinguish themselves as gay in light of all the camp mannerisms of Frankie Howerd? Certainly, it’s doubtful that anyone in the public thought that Howerd was gay, since in his public roles he gave more of an impression of being like your lecherous uncle. It’s only in retrospect, knowing more about his private life, that it seems a little more implausible that such extravagant ineveigling, slightly sneering horse-faced performance might not have suggested a little something to all the contemporary folks watching at home.

It’s fairly light stuff, and likewise the two performances are equally light. Just before Lurkio lets them in, before this clips starts, we hear two loud “Yooo-hoos!”. Then they enter, fey, swinging their handbags, effeminate hands either clasped together or fluttering at the wrists, and not much in terms of dialogue, other then “pressies” and “absolutely divine” and “ta-ta”. It’s Howerd’s camping it up with them and then his line just after they’ve left which makes the real insinuation. And then his “I thought you queen had already arrived” after the battle. Not much really, nor very provocative, when compared to “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”.

However, it is relatively groundbreaking, since it is probably only a quirk of scheduling that has this episode beaten a month earlier by Steptoe and Son, the earliest sitcom I can find featuring gay characters which thankfully has a better handling of characterisation and set-ups for its gay-themed gags. Then again most of the gay characters on British sitcoms in the very early 1970s appear in atrociously broad ITV sitcoms (“Not on Your Nelly”, anyone?) not the respectable efforts which get repeated until the crack of doom.

Of course, “Up Pompeii” isn’t quite what one would recognise as a typical sitcom. It’s rather more like a pantomime or end-of-the-pier entertainment, with Howerd breaking the fourth wall to address his audience and comment on events and the general quality of the show. And pantomimes are full of gender-bending, pretty young girls as principal boys, men in drag as dames, and a undercurrent of sexual gags to keep the adults entertained. In such an environment, it’s possible to throw in a few gay gags which might get overlooked in the general free-for-all.

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