Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Up Pompeii! at The British Museum

I have noticed a growing trend in recent years where re-screenings of classic Hollywood and indie films are being presented to the general public in some very novel venues and settings, ranging from rooftops to churches to museums to open air settings to old petrol stations and even while immersed in hot tubs! I think this is quite a clever concept, as it gives the films a whole new lease of life, and in addition allows the viewer to experience watching them with a live audience again (or indeed for the first time).

It was one such screening that I attended a couple of Fridays back (19 April), which took place in the Stevenson Lecture Theatre at the British Museum; Up Pompeii!, the 1971 British comedy film, based on the TV series of the same name and starring Frankie Howerd as Lurcio. It was being shown in line with the theme of the museum's current exhibition - Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum. 

I had of course already seen this many times over the years on TV, but it sounded too good an opportunity to miss out on watching it with a live audience (and for £3.00, plus online booking fee, far cheaper than your average visit to the cinema!). The lecture theatre was laid out with one bank of seats rising up and away from the main speaker platform - able at total capacity to accommodate 142 people. I guessed it was probably around 85-90 per cent full (maybe a little more). Once the audience were seated and settled, a member of the museum staff stood up to the podium to introduce the two speakers who would be talking a bit about the film before it began. She also informed us that her museum colleagues had been championing the screening of the film ever since they learned of the current exhibition theme. It would seem that they got their way! Then she announced and brought up the speakers: Professor Maria Wyke, a Latin specialist at University College London, and author, classicist, broadcaster and comedian Natalie Haynes

The 20 minute or so pre-screening talk was interesting and both speakers gave some informative perspectives on ancient Roman life. Natalie Haynes quoted some lines from the Roman poet Juvenal (who satirised/ranted - dependent on your viewpoint - about many things that would be considered un-PC in today's more conservative landscape), which generated audience laughter. She thought it was interesting to note that Juvenal could still evoke such a response and considered a hypothetical association between his public speaking and the origins of modern stand-up, which was Frankie Howerd's principal comedy genre. 

As to Up Pompeii! itself: very much a British comedy, in the style of the Carry On films - which isn't really all that surprising when you consider that Sid Colin wrote the screenplay. Colin co-wrote the second series of the TV version with Talbot Rothwell. Rothwell had previously written all of series one, but is best known for his writing of 20 of the Carry On films, from Carry On Cabby in 1963 to Carry On Dick in 1974. His influence on Colin here is evident.

Frankie Howerd was very good at making scripted comedy seem improvised, but in my opinion he falls a little flat in this film (in contrast to the TV version) and the delivery is sometimes too contrived. But there are nevertheless moments where it's typical Frankie, and there was a particular belly laugh moment when Lurcio reads out one of the 'odes to Flavia', the aspirational love interest of Nausius, who has written the following verse for her:

I hereby vow to give my all
To you most beauteous Venus ...
(Lurcio looks knowingly at the camera, rolls tongue in cheek)
All that I own, my heart and soul
And half a yard of ... gold brocade!

Not quite Horace or Persius but the audience roared with laughter! 

On a side note, a late arrival to the screening (just as the talk was ending and the film beginning) decided to sit next to me and immediately asked me what she'd missed so far. I informed her she'd missed most of the talk but said that at least she'd arrived before the film had started, so all was not lost. "Is it based on Roman history?" she asked, quite seriously. She was about my age, possibly older, so I assumed she must have seen the film before. "Well, sort of." I replied, considering it a strange question and not really wanting to point out the obvious. I began to wonder if she realised we were about to watch a comedy film. "If you like Roman history ... and Frankie Howerd ... you won't be disappointed." I said, to help clarify things. "Oh, I'm not sure about Frankie Howerd!" she remarked, with a slight air of repellence, at which point the film then thankfully began, thereby dampening further discussion. 

I didn't hear her laughing too much during the next hour and a half and, once it had finished, she asked me again if it had some basis in historical fact...? "What, actual history?" I replied. "Yes". "Well, in as much as it was set in the ancient Roman world, erm, yes." I didn't trouble passing on to her that none of the main characters in the film were actually based on real historical figures, apart from the Emperor Nero, and even he had died 11 years before the events supposedly taking place on screen. I didn't really want to get into a deeper discussion, as she already seemed rather confused! It was when she then followed me out of the theatre and proceeded to tell me she was carrying her night clothes and was heading back to her daughter's empty property in Ilford for the night and didn't like the thought of being there alone, that I made a hasty retreat for my train! 

While not the first time I have done something like this, it was interesting to see the film with an audience reacting to it and I'd like to try to get to some more film screenings at other venues in the future. And there was something to be said for watching it at The British Museum, knowing there were real Roman artefacts in the very same building - it seemed to add something. Very similar in fact to my recent Caesar and Cleopatra outing several blogs ago at the Petrie Museum. Not sure about the Hot Tub Cinema yet though - need to lose a few before I try that! 


  1. It been really historically great watching this Pompeii historical documentary on how they vanish. I always was curious on how the roman ancient vanish. Since they always mention about gods, I would of think that the gods destroy them but come to find out it was all a volcano eruption or nature itself.
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