Thursday, August 22

Forum for comedy

- March 26, 2013

Plebs started last night, and is a new British comedy created for ITV2, which is why you’ll probably be able to catch repeats of the opening episode every other evening schedule this week. It’s not like there are a lot of new ITV comedies – they seem to have a thing about 90-minute dramas at the moment, particularly midweek – so this new gem from the pens of Edinburgh Award nominee and former close collaborator with Tim Key and Mark Watson, Tom Basden along with Sam Leifer (previous credits including script editing Off The Hook) has a lot riding on it. Will it be the next Rising Damp or attract all the credibility of Coming Of Age? Google it.

It actually comes across more like The Inbetweeners meets Maid Marian And Her Merry Men. With a happy-go-lucky attitude and a youth dynamic focusing on three young Roman men – oh yes, it’s set in Ancient Rome – Plebs takes a contemporary social group interaction and plonks it down in the middle of Rome and all of what that might entail. Actually, when you’re looking for influences here it would be foolish to miss out The Flintstones as Marcus and Stylax (protagonist who just wants a girlfriend and best mate who just wants to be a bit uncouth and maybe scratch a bit) also have a work life in which Marcus is a scribe and Stylax tears things up. One’s a photocopier and the other’s a shredder. And there’s a water boy – sorry ‘water man’ played by series writer Tom Basden. He is essentially the water cooler that comes and stands by them as they gossip. Rather a forward-thinking concept for the work-efficient office.

The plot of this first episode is that the boys have found a flyer to an orgy and they want to attend. The third to the hapless male trio is Grumio, Marcus’ slave. It’s an interesting concept to include a few of the characters as ‘slaves’ as this seems to mean that they’re less clapped in irons and more like the weakest member of any young twentysomething group. Again, rather forward thinking, and perhaps a more honest term than anyone else has come up with. Grumio is a little similar to Blackadder’s Baldrick, just not quite so disgusting but also left with the task of feeding and managing the day-to-day living affairs of the more alpha members of the group. It does seem odd to have Tom Rosenthal – for it is he playing Marcus – as the alpha, but he does have Doon Mackichan playing his forceful female boss so it’s all relative.

“It’s fun, but is it Up Pompeii?”

Anyway, led by Stylax, the chaps’ aim is to go to this orgy. To get in they have to pay a rather steep entrance fee, bring their own towels, and each bring a lady friend. Tricky. And hence the premise. And the opportunity to meet the new girl in town, fresh off the boat from Briton, along with her own rather feisty lady slave. All good plot progression and character introduction.

It’s fun, but is it Up Pompeii? Frankie Howerd may seem nostalgically safe now but he was risqué in his time, as this may well be. Are they a par for their own ages? Actually, Up Pompeii seemed far more aware of its setting, but I do have a soft spot for Maid Marian and her funky straight-talking tree-climbing tomboy ways, which the soft rasta soundtrack and uttering of “coolio”as a term of agreement might indicate Plebs will hold. 

This has some fun ideas, and a good cast. I’m probably not an Inbetweeners-style programme’s target audience, so I am bound to find some bits a little facile. The female characters are no cleverer than the male ones, and are just as ridiculous in different ways, so it’s actually quite balanced on that front. In terms of breaking through as ITV’s new comedy output though, Plebs seems more defined to challenge the terrain of BBC3 than threaten to compete with Channel 4’s original giant comedy output. Maybe the next ITV1 comedy commission will hold something for us (slightly) more mature comedy fans in store.
Plebs, ITV2, Monday 25 March 2013 (ITV Player)

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