Tessa Le Bars is one of the best known showbiz agents in the business and at one time had a client list that read like a who’s who of comedy royalty. Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Johnny Speight, John Antrobus and Frankie Howerd were just a few of her clients.
As I had just had my comedy play Laugh? I Nearly Went to Miami! produced at a fringe theatre in Hampstead which in turn had attracted a modicum of interest from theatre publishers Samuel French Ltd, I wrote to Tessa and asked her if she would consider representing me. To my amazement she said yes.
One day I was having a meeting with her in her smart suite of offices just off Harley Street when she said that she’d given Frankie Howerd a copy of Laugh? I Nearly Went to Miami! to read. “Why?” I asked. There wasn’t really a part suitable for him to play, the leading man was in his early 40s and not even Frank would have got away with that.
Tessa went on to explain that Frank was always on the lookout for new writers but in particular he was looking for a new farce writer as he wanted to revive his most popular TV work Up Pompeii! as a stage play.
The plan was to take it on a national tour before bringing it into the West End. She couldn’t promise anything, the first step was to see if Frank liked my style of writing.
Three days later Tessa phoned to say that Frank had found my play funny and would like to meet me. A meeting was arranged for the following Tuesday.
When I arrived he was standing in Tessa’s little cloakroom, adjusting his toupee in the mirror. The door was ajar and he didn’t seem at all fazed when he saw me standing in the corridor observing him.
Without taking his eyes off his reflection he acknowledged me and quickly made the final adjustments to his rust coloured mop. He then led me into the office where he talked about himself a bit before embarking on his Up Pompeii! plans.
He admitted that he hadn’t been in a stage production for a while and was missing it.
He also spoke of his blackest moments in the early 1960s when he had suffered from terrible depression. At that time he had gone from being the country’s top comedy star with headlining stints at the London Palladium, Variety Bandbox on the radio and several films to his name to the position of being considered ‘old hat’ when the new wave of Oxbridge wits broke through.
Ironically though it was one of this new breed, Peter Cook, who had reinflated Frank’s career by inviting him to perform at his Establishment Club in Soho.
This engagement directly led to him getting a regular slot on the BBC TV show That Was The Week That Was and since then he had been constantly in work.
But he had never forgotten those dark days. He would often refer to them as I got to know him better over the forthcoming years.
Frank’s idea was to revisit his greatest role, that of Lurcio the slave in the BBC sitcom Up Pompeii! He asked me did I know the show? I replied that I did. He asked me if I thought it was funny. I said I did. He asked me to go away and write a two-hour stage version. I said I would.
It was that simple.
Back home at my flat in Cricklewood, I got to work. There was no point in trying to change the format, it was all there. Talbot Rothwell’s characters with the wonderful names; Lurcio’s Master, Ludicrus Sextus, his wife Ammonia, their promiscuous daughter Erotica and innocent son Nausius and of course Senna the Soothsayer were eternally etched in the nation’s psyche.
All I had to do was give the play ‘legs’. Make the script stretch out to a full evening’s entertainment of two hours and make sure that Frank had the lion’s share of the gags but not the running around. “I’m not as agile as I was, Miles,” he explained, “make sure I chase all the girls but make sure they’re the ones who run out of breath.”
Within a few weeks I had what I considered a promising first draft. It had a cast of eleven and used one set. I rang Frank to tell him the news. “That’s wonderful,” he said. “What we must do is have a read-through. I’ll get a little cast together. How about Saturday evening?”
That Saturday my wife Narelle and I plus eleven copies of my script turned up at Frank’s elegant house in Edwardes Square just off Kensington High Street.
His partner Dennis let us in and poured out a couple of his highly generous gin and tonics. “Frank’s just popped out,” he explained. “He’s knocking on a few doors trying to drum up a little cast for the read-through. But he shouldn’t be long. I’m to keep you entertained until he’s here.”
My mind boggled. The idea that Frankie Howerd would be knocking on neighbours’ doors of various well known Kensington actors and trying to persuade them to join his little repertory company was hilarious. I could just picture the scene.
FRANKIE: (On doorstep of well known actor) I was just wondering if you fancied popping around to mine for a little reading of Up Pompeii!?
ACTOR: But Frank I was just settling down to an episode of Casualty that I’m in. You see I play this farmer trapped under his tractor who is bleeding to death and…
FRANKIE: All right, all right! Don’t go on! Please yourself…
And on he moves to the next house.
However, it wasn’t that far fetched for a few minutes later the doorbell rang and Jeanne Mockford arrived. She was the actress who every week had played Senna the Soothsayer in Up Pompeii! She was a close friend of Frank’s and lived nearby. She would be happy to reprise her role for the evening.
“I hope it’s a big part” she joked as she scanned a copy of the script I gave her. It was actually. I had always thought that the BBC had under-used Jeanne’s considerable comedic talents in the sit-com and had given her character far more ‘meat’ in my play.
After about half an hour Frank returned from his mission, alone.
By this time the rest of us were pretty happy (probably not unconnected to Dennis’s exceptional skills as host) and the fact that Frank had returned empty handed didn’t seem to matter at all.
“I shall read all the other parts,” I said slightly too confidently. “And not only that but I shall announce all the stage directions as well.”
“Who do you think you are?” demanded Frank with a raised eyebrow, “Rory Bremner? You can do the stage directions if you like but that’s all. Leave the acting to actors, Miles.”
And so we got going. Me reading the stage directions and Frank insisting that not only would he read his leading role of Lurcio but he would read all the other parts as well including one hilarious scene where he ends up seducing himself in the guise of Ammonia his mistress!
He was a very good actor and used different voices in all the roles.
The only part he didn’t play was Senna the Soothsayer. I think Jeanne would have had something to say about that if he had!
By the end of the reading we all felt like we had been snowed in on a cosy winter’s night listening to a radio play. It was a lovely relaxed atmosphere and as he put the script down, Frank declared that he had thoroughly enjoyed it.
Later Frank took us all out for a meal at one of his favourite Italian restaurants Timo in Kensington High Street. He had been very pleased with the Up Pompeii! read-through.
“I definitely think this will work,” he said. “People are always asking me if I’m ever going to bring back the show. I think I can now tell them I’m ready to.”
After that evening I polished up the script a little and waited to hear from Tessa as to when we might be starting rehearsals for the proposed tour.
One day she called me. “It looks like we’re going to have to put Up Pompeii! on the back-burner, Miles. Larry Gelbert’s going to do a revival of his show A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and he wants Frank to reprise his role as Pseudolus. He’s going to start it down in Chichester and then bring it into the West End.”
As A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Up Pompeii! were both inspired by the comedies of Plautus, it seemed unlikely that Frank would ever re-stage his former TV hit in the theatre. There was only so much Roman farce a man could do.
I went to see Frank in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the Piccadilly Theatre in the West End.
Relaxing over a drink in his dressing room after the curtain had come down, he told me how taxing the part of Pseudolus was. “All that running around, Miles. Quite exhausting. Mind you it would have been a lot worse if it had been your play. I’d have had to play all the other characters too!”
Yes but then I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of seeing Frankie Howerd play ten parts in a private reading of Up Pompeii!
If only I had taken along a tape recorder...
Read more about the play Up Pompeii here.