Yesterday, British comedy legend, Frankie Howerd, would have turned 100. Oddly, Francis Alick Howerd OBE was, perhaps, best remembered for his efforts in the classic Carry On films even though he only appeared in 2 of the 31 films, Carry On Doctor (1967) and Carry On Up The Jungle (1970) – plus one television special, the 1969 edition of Carry On Christmas. Long-time fans of British situation comedy, myself included, will forever remember Howerd as the Roman slave Lurcio in the period sitcom Up Pompeii!, which was created for him after his success in a London stage production of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.
Set in ancient ‘pre-eruption’ Pompeii, the series featured a number of Carry On film stars and was produced by comedy icons, David Croft (Dad’s Army, Are You Being Served?, ‘Allo ‘Allo), Sydney Lotterby (As Time Goes By, May to December, Last of the Summer Wine, Yes Minister, Yes Prime Minister, Open All Hours, Butterflies, Porridge) and Michael Mills (Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, Wodehouse Playhouse). It was Mills who, after seeing A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, thankfully felt that it could become the basis of a series. Up Pompeii was born.
Much like its companion in comedy greatness, Fawlty Towers, which came along several years after Up Pompeii, it’s hard to believe there were only two series (13 episodes) ever produced. Originally produced as a BBC One Comedy Playhouse pilot in 1969, the two series of Up Pompeii were produced the next year with series two actually commissioned only four months after series one was completed. Howerd passed away at the age of 75 in 1992 following a one-off 1991 special, Further Up Pompeii which was broadcast on ITV.
The series was known for its endless series of double entendres and risqué gags throughout each episode with Howerd usually at the center of each one as he would ‘break the fourth wall’ and address the live studio audience using asides that the other characters couldn’t hear, often commenting on the script and, sometimes, complaining that everyone else got the good lines. Each episode began with the ‘prologue’ and featured Howerd speaking directly to camera but seldom concluded and rarely had anything to do with the episode’s plot. That aside, it was generally comic genius.
Not sure how this ultimately ended up but back in 2010, if you were a British comedy fan with a spare 450,000 pounds ($696,000) you didn’t know what do with, the estate of Carry On and Up Pompeii star, Frankie Howerd, was up for grabs along with the right to acquire a share of the over 4,000 piece collection of Howerd’s memorabilia. Included in the collection were hours of private interviews conducted before the comic legends’ death which detail much of his private life along with his friendship with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland. Here’s the scoop on the original house and contents according to the Daily Mail.
At the time is was to go up for auction, the Somerset country home and all its’ contents had been left virtually untouched since Howerd’s death in 1992. Howerd’s partner and manager, Dennis Heymer, lived in the house until his death in 2010. Looking at some of the artifacts, you’d think they came from the set of Up Pompeii, when, in reality, they’re actually real statues over 2,500 years old and a fossilized egg found in Pompeii that was a gift to Howerd by the Italian government.
For me, it’s enough to just remember Howerd’s camp ad-libbed monologues as Lurcio during Up Pompeii that were delivered directly to the audience. Thankfully, I left the checkbook at home that day and let someone else have a shot at the estate.
While British comedy fans have been robbed of anything new from the mind of Frankie Howerd for the past 25 years, like Fawlty Towers, I can still watch the 13 episodes of Up Pompeii and never tire of it.