Cherwell

‘Plebs’ triumphs despite low expectations

Billed as The Inbetweeners in Ancient Rome, critical expectations were not high for Plebs when it first aired on ITV2 in 2013. Many compared it to an inferior version of Blackadder, and its combination of deliberately anachronistic idioms and a traditionally serious setting was predicted to be a flop à la The Last Days of Pompeii. It is a credit to writer-creator team Tom Basden and Sam Leifer that Plebs has just been renewed for a fourth series, having earned a BAFTA nomination and broken ITV viewing records.

The premise of the show is simple: Marcus (Tom Rosenthal) and Stylax (Joel Fry), two desperate young men hailing from suburbia, move to Rome with their slave Grumio (Ryan Sampson) and attempt to impress girls and hold down jobs in the big city, right at the height of Rome’s imperial power. While the stereotypes are certainly present—the first episode is named ‘The Orgy’, and a cameo from Danny Dyer as a macho gladiator is not to be missed—the show is very aware of the epic tradition it is channelling, and reconciles its grandiose setting (which uses, in fact, the same purpose-built studio as Spartacus and 300: Rise of an Empire) with decidedly 21st Century language and humour.

By transplanting modern dilemmas into a classical setting, Plebs manages to be both funny and original. For example, Marcus’s attempts to woo long-term love interest Cynthia at the Roman festival of Saturnalia is evocative of a New Year’s Eve party, and a somewhat taboo debate about the pros and cons of porn is introduced with the arrival of an erotically decorated vase. This is all accompanied by an upbeat and jovial ska soundtrack, which contributes to a general feeling that history and modernity have been reconciled in this cheerful production.

For those looking, the classical references and nods towards history that do crop up are wonderfully understated and unassuming. From the use of red-coloured Corinthian columns on temples, to the prevalence of graffiti similar to that found at Pompeii, Plebs is far more self-aware than its idiomatic dialogue would suggest. Particularly delicious is the moment in series three when Marcus and new girlfriend Delphine have a night in to catch up on box sets—the box set in question being Virgil’s Aeneid, newly released.

For those select, classically-trained viewers who picked up on the fact that ‘Grumio’ and ‘Metella’ have been lifted straight out of the Cambridge Latin Course, it may come as no surprise that one of the writers, Sam Leifer, studied Classics at Oxford, and that the show had Mary Beard on board as a historical consultant. Consequently, what could be a gimmick in fact becomes a defining attribute of the show, and one that the writers never lose sight of. The storylines, while incorporating aspects of modern life, are nonetheless very grounded in the classical setting, with minor subplots about Roman religion, incest, and political marriage.

This is not to say that Plebs is inaccessible to those not versed in Plato and Horace—the humour is adult and far more universal than merely a few jokes about colosseums and phalluses. In fact, it is this aspect of the show that is so appealing—the fact that almost in spite of the setting, at the heart of the production, is a universal and relatable human scenario. The humour of Stylax learning to do a three-point turn in his chariot needs no grounding in Greek verse to understand. It is this that makes Plebs such an original, self-aware, and engaging adult comedy.

For my interview with Plebs writer and creator Tom Basden, check out Cherwell Broadcasting.