Up Pompeii is a cult British comedy classic. Starring Frankie Howerd – in probably his most well-known and best-loved role – it ran on British television from 1969-1975, and spawned a successful spin-off film in 1971. Today’s audio revival was an affectionate homage, and an unashamed feel-good performance. There is no denying that the ribald, double-entendre-ridden campery of Up Pompeii and the Carry On films is dated, and as such now leaves many people cold. The Saturday afternoon audience at the Shaw Theatre was one of fans: of the original series, of Frankie Howerd, and of radio. As such, the performers could relax and have fun, knowing that they were preaching to the converted. And, for those who love it, it was indeed lots of fun. A hoot.
Manning the centre microphone, David Benson took on Frankie Howerd’s role of Lurcio, the savvy slave who keeps his master and mistress’ household together. It was a wonderful performance, and Benson was clearly having a ball. Known for his brilliant portrayals of Noël Coward and Kenneth Williams, he managed to capture Howerd’s trademark arch, high-camp delivery, whilst at the same time making it his own. The ad-libs (both scripted and unscripted) were delicious, and the out-take moments (‘I fucked that up last time, we’d better do that again!’) all added to the fun. The supporting cast was terrific – Jilly Breeze an unforgettable Senna the Soothsayer; Jack Lane as the callow youth Nausius; Cleo Rocos as sexpot Suspenda, Frazer Hines as the master, Ludicrus Sextus, and Barnaby Eaton-Jones (also director/producer and one of the show’s writers) as fabulously stupid Kretinus – but the afternoon belonged to Benson.
Farce of this kind relies on quickfire delivery and running gags, and becomes funnier as it builds. Benson was a masterful conductor, and led this afternoon’s audience – and his fellow cast members to boot – into a veritable crescendo of silliness. The script was a little patchy, perhaps owing to the plethora of writers whose voices helped bring it to life (this audio adaptation was written by Barnaby Eaton-Jones, with Daniel McGachy and Iain McLaughlin; adapted from the successful spin-off stage play by Miles Treddinick, and based on the original characters and BBC TV scripts devised by Talbot Rothwell and Sid Colin) but Benson’s performance energy helped paper over the cracks, and we were swept along with him when the comedy flagged.
These performances were recorded for radio to mark the 50th anniversary of Up Pompeii’s first broadcast, and will be available to download from Amazon, iTunes and spitefulpuppet.com in November. Highly recommended for Frankie Howerd fans everywhere.
” an homage to the original writers and a celebration of a particular brand of humour that has sadly all but passed away”
From the moment we hear the voice of the former music hall star, Bud Flanagan, crooning the famous theme tune for “Dad’s Army” through the speakers, we are wrapped in a blanket of fond nostalgia which keeps us warm for the ensuing ninety minutes. We think we are in for an unsurprising, almost gentle, recap of the BBC television sitcom about the British Home Guard during the Second World War; yet we are immediately caught off guard by the impressive skill of impersonation. David Benson and Jack Lane, between them, take on all the characters with near perfection.
Set in a fictional seaside town on the south coast of England, the stories revolve around a mixed bag of local volunteers otherwise ineligible for military service, either by being in professions exempt from conscription or because of age (hence the name ‘Dad’s Army’). “Dad’s Army Radio Show” relives three classic episodes; ‘Round and Round Went the Great Big Wheel’, ‘Mum’s Army’ and ‘The Deadly Attachment’, eschewing visual props and set, recreating the atmosphere of a radio broadcast that ultimately relies purely on the script and the voice. A tall order, maybe, but this two-man army conquer the task with masterful ease.
The pair seamlessly bounce between the characters as fast as the humour switches from subtle to slapstick, enjoying every minute and relishing the crackle of catchphrases that have become part of popular culture. They don’t look the part but as soon as Lane utters the clipped vowels of Captain Mainwaring you can close your eyes and picture Arthur Lowe on a grainy black and white television screen. Only, don’t close your eyes! Otherwise you will miss the meticulous mannerisms. Benson’s Sergeant Wilson comes complete with the shy half-smile and self-conscious forehead-patting we loved John Le Mesurier for. Blink and he has morphed into the dour, Scottish Private Frazer or black-market spiv Private Walker; while Lane ricochets between the old but hilariously fastidious Lance Corporal Jones and the young, mother’s boy Private Pike.
Aided by Tom Lishman’s evocatively period sound design, this is not merely an exercise in mimicry. It is an homage to the original writers and a celebration of a particular brand of humour that has sadly all but passed away. It is not laugh-out loud, nor sensational, yet it still bites beneath its soft pelt. It pokes fun at our very Englishness, but the real target is outside aggression, to which it stands up, and fights.
The original television series was expected to have had limited appeal, and all involved were surprised at the popularity of the show, later reflected in the frequency of the repeats over five decades. Similarly, “Dad’s Army Radio Show” reaches beyond the limits of an audience wanting merely to relive the moment. The winning charm of Benson and Lane, that equals that of the mellow yet bitingly ironic original material, not only ensures that this show will stand the test of time and invite repeat viewing, but will persuade us, familiar with it or not, to revisit the original.