Most TV critics are snooty people. I’m probably very snooty. You should shun me.
This snootiness can manifest in different ways. One of the more obvious is the ‘happiness hierarchy’ – miserable things are inherently ‘better’ than happy things, drama is superior to comedy and so on. It’s not that TV critics are universally Buddhists who think that all life is suffering, but there’s a certain belief that to be good, something needs to depict life as it is – and that’s miserable.
Naturally, when it comes to plays, the dramas resultingly get all the attention, particularly on TV. The usual litany of ‘top TV play series’ trotted out by a TV historian or enthusiast encompasses Play For Today, The Wednesday Play, Armchair Theatre and the like, perhaps focusing on Ken Loach’s work or something gritty about working class life in Hull, rather than Abigail’s Party, say, although that might get a look in because of what it says about suburban middle class concerns of the 70s. Not because it’s funny.
Meanwhile, perhaps the most successful play series of them all will barely pop up on their radar because it was chock full of comedies. Comedy Playhouse ran on BBC One for 15 series between 1961 and 1975, taking in 120 episodes along the way and including plays that would eventually give rise to no fewer than 27 spin-off TV series, including Steptoe and Son, Meet the Wife, Till Death Us Do Part, All Gas and Gaiters, Not in Front of the Children, Me Mammy, That’s Your Funeral, The Liver Birds, Are You Being Served? and Last of the Summer Wine, as well as an additional spin-off series, Scottish Comedy Playhouse. Beat that Play For Today.
The series started when the head of BBC Light Entertainment, Tom Sloan, discovered Galton and Simpson were no longer writing for Tony Hancock and so asked them to do six one-off comedies with the hope that one might become established as a series. Galton and Simpson agreed, handing in six plays, the fourth of which, The Offer, went on to become Steptoe and Son. The series itself was successful enough that Galton and Simpson wrote a second series of six plays, after which subsequent series were written by different writers.
Up Pompeii! was the final play of the show’s eighth series, which had started with no less an entry than Carla Lane’s The Liver Birds. Its inspiration came during a trip abroad – Sloan and Michael Mills, the head of comedy at the BBC, were visiting the ruins of Pompeii. Mills had recently seen Frankie Howerd in the play A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, where he’d play the part of the slave Pseudolus (played by Zero Mostel in the movie):
He said to Sloan that he “half-expected Frankie Howerd to appear coming round some corner.” Sloan had replied “Why not?” and Up Pompeii! was born.
However, it was neither Sloan nor Mills who would write Up Pompeii! Instead, they asked Talbot Rothwell, the writer of no fewer than 19 Carry On! movies, to do the honours, and after sending set designer Sally Hulke to Pompeii to ensure some realism and authenticity in the production’s look, the play took flight.
Essentially just a vehicle for Frankie Howerd to deliver double entendres, usually to camera, against a backdrop of cod-Roman farcical shenanigans that owe more than a bit of inspiration to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Forum, both Up Pompeii! and Up Pompeii! are nevertheless classics of comedy. The show would run for two series, and resulted in a movie sequel and two further movies and TV series with the same general format but set in different time periods, Up The Chastity Belt, Up The Front, Whoops Baghdad and Then Churchill Said to Me. There were also two follow-up specials, Further Up Pompeii, and a stage show.
Not bad, hey? But then even Comedy Playhouse returned in 2014, so clearly there’s a lot of it about. Titter ye not.