Friday, 7 January 2011

Up Pompeii (1971)

Up Pompeii was based on the classic British comedy TV series of the same name. THe flavour is very similar to that of the Carry On movies and of course its star Frankie Howerd had appeared in several of those.

At the time the TV series seemed quite innovative with Howerd constantly breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly, and making comments on the cheapness of the sets and the age of the jokes. In fact the series was very much in the style of the Roman comedies of 2,000 years ago which were part of the inspiration for the series.

The central character is a slave named Lurcio (Howerd). He’s owned by an ageing and somewhat dotty senator, Ludicrus Sextus. Lurcio spends most of his time extricating Ludicrous and his family from various scrapes, and tis is a family very much inclined to get into scrapes. Ludicrus’s wife Ammonia has the morals of an alley cat and will chase anything in a toga. Their daughter Erotica is equally depraved. Their son Nausius on the other hand is much too innocent, forever falling in love but never quite managing to lose his virginity.

The movie is pretty much just an extended episode of the series, but with slightly more risque jokes and quite a bit of nudity. The original TV series was considered very raunchy indeed back in 1969. The extra naughtiness and the bare flesh does it no harm at all and again is quite in keeping with the kinds of comedies the Romans themselves enjoyed.

There is a plot to assassinate the Emperor Nero, and as usual the hapless senator Ludicrus gets himself accidentally involved. There’s no more to the plot than that, but it doesn’t matter. As with the TV series the plot is inconsequential, and Frankie Howerd could certainly carry a comedy quite successfully without requiring a plot. Interestingly enough although Up Pompeii also appeared to be improvisational almost to the point of anarchy it was in fact very tightly scripted. Frankie Howerd was quite capable of following a script precisely whilst seeming to be wildly ad-libbing.

In some ways it’s unfortunate that Frankie Howerd was the only cast member from the series to appear in the movie but the replacements are quite competent, and in the case of Sir Michael Hordern who pays Ludicrus in the movie much more than competent. The supporting cast includes the gorgeous Julie Ege as Voluptua, the wife of the treacherous proconsul Prosperus. Hammer had tried to make her a star, without a great deal of success, but she certainly adds some glamour.

Like the TV series the movie has that cheeky feeling that the best British comedies of its era had. It’s also very politically incorrect.

Whether it was really a good idea try to recreate the basic Up Pompeii formula in a feature film is open to debate. It was really much better suited to television and to a much shorter format but it’s still a pretty decent attempt.

If you’re a fan of the Carry On movies you’re probably going to love this one, and if you’re not then you’ll probably hate it. If you’re a fan of Frankie Howerd then it becomes a must-see. I’m a huge fan of both the TV series and Frankie Howerd so I certainly enjoyed myself.

It’s available on Region 2 DVD in a double-movie set paired with Up the Chastity Belt which is simply Up Pompeii transposed to a medieval setting. If you’re not familiar with the TV series it’s probably a better place to start, and it’s available on DVD as well.

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