The recent announcement that ITV2 was developing what, they hope, would be a ‘channel-defining sitcom’ was not only another example of broadcasters (e.g. Sky, Channel 4, ITV) commitment to increase comedy output but reminded me of a classic 70’s BBC sitcom during the golden age of comedy when it was essentially the BeeB or nothing when it came to comedy output. According to the British Comedy Guide, Plebs is in the completed pilot stage with hopes of being picked up for a full series given reports coming out of ITV2.
Plebs – a title which is a reference to the Latin word used to describe common people – will be an ensemble sitcom following the lives of young people in Ancient Rome. Hoping to emulate the success of The Inbetweeners, Plebs will star some potentially unfamiliar names from some very familiar series with Tom Rosenthal from Friday Night Dinner, Joel Fry from White Van Man and Trollied and Adrian Scarborough from Gavin & Stacey and Psychoville as Claudius.
In setting only, as Plebs reads more like an Animal House style Toga party, the series reminds me of the classic BBC comedy, Up Pompeii, starring the late, great Frankie Howerd. The series, which ran only two short seasons back in 1969-1970, was written by and starred a number of Carry On film alumni, would probably have a hard time being broadcast today with its endless series of double entendres and sexual innuendos, although Are You Being Served still manages to find a home on public television stations in the States to some success.
With some of Howerd’s inspiration for the series coming from the film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the greatness of it centered around Howerd’s ability to depart from the script and play it up to the camera along with some extremely politically incorrect character names like Senator Ludicrus Sextus, his promiscuous wife Ammonia, daughter Erotica and his forever virginal son, Nausius.
Case in point, in episode one from series one, titled “Vestal Virgins”, where the annual ceremony of the Vestal Virgins is about to be held. The compere hasn’t turned up, so Ludicrus has to do the honours, aided by Lurcio (Frankie Howerd). Ludicrous is promoting a bill in the Senate to close down the local brothels. This brings him into conflict with the brothel keepers, who plot to ruin the Vestal Virgins ceremony.
A fun side note: look for a young Geoffrey Hughes (Onslow, Keeping Up Appearances) as Piteous appearing at around 8:00 minutes into the episode.