Plebs: A funny thing happened on the way to the Colosseum

Plebs is set in Ancient Rome, but the sitcom tells timeless truths about life at the bottom of the pile, says its writer Tom Basden

redirect

In September last year, about a month before we were due to start shooting Plebs, a new sitcom set in Ancient Rome written by me and Sam Leifer, we were handed a pretty juicy and unexpected PR leg-up by Andrew Mitchell, former Tory chief whip.

Whether he called, or as he insists, did not call, a policeman a “pleb”, it both ended his career and, in the eyes of our commissioners, made me and Sam look like astute and prescient trendsetters. Which, I can't emphasise enough, we're not. We'd had the title for several months by that point and were blithely writing a show that had no press traction or cultural cache whatsoever. The cynical among you may think we changed the title to cash in, but we were just lucky, I swear.

Apart from creating the impression that we knew what we were doing, the “Plebgate” furore helped to bolster one of the claims we made to ITV when pitching the show: that over the course of 2000 years, people haven't changed. There will always be self-important pricks accused of calling petty officials plebs; there will always be a baying mob looking to hurl moral outrage at the rich and powerful; and there will always be a public obsession with class.

Roman graffiti still visible on the Vesuvius-baked streets of Pompeii reveals funny/depressing similarities between the ancient and modern world, both in how we spend our time and the feeble lies we tell others: “Epaphra is bad at ball games”, “I screwed the barmaid”, “Publius Comicius Restitutus stood right here with his brother”. Long before Facebook and Twitter, ancient Roman status updates were just as banal as our own. As it happens, you'll be able to see some of this graffiti at the British Museum's new exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which opens three days after the first two episodes of Plebs are broadcast – which is another total fluke. Promise.

Despite being set amid the grandeur of Imperial Rome then, our show, as the title suggests, is based on the real lives of the real idiots who wrote this kind of graffiti; the parts played by the extras in HBO's Rome, or the spectators in Gladiator. The historical truth of the Roman pleb experience throws up numerous plots and characters that are pretty ideal for sitcom and chillingly close to life now. One of our plebs gets herpes, one of them squanders money on lottery tickets and one of them gets heavily into pornographic pottery.

Like most Romans at the time, our characters live in the dangerous/up-and-coming Suburra district, in a small, dingy flat, in a decaying insula (Roman housing estate) managed by one of the many shyster landlords who preyed on hapless plebs in 27BC. Our plebs – Marcus, Stylax and their lazy slave Grumio, played by Tom Rosenthal (Friday Night Dinner), Joel Fry (Trollied) and Ryan Sampson (The Work Experience) – have rubbish jobs, struggle to meet women and constantly feel as though action is happening somewhere else. There is hopefully something universal, maybe even topical, about not having much money or status in a metropolis. So determined were we to give the show the whiff of truth, we even pestered Mary Beard, responsible for the excellent BBC4 show Meet the Romans, for pointers. In return, we gave one of our characters the last name Eurysaces after a baker she features in her programme.

Before Michael Gove starts using Plebs as an educational resource, I should stress that not all of it is accurate. Being a sitcom rather than a drama, our relationship with the truth is fairly self-serving, and while some of the story ideas are authentically Roman, many of them are incidents from our own lives that we've dressed up in tunics. Getting beaten up by a pensioner happened to me (I was drunk and he took me by surprise), having to lend your towel to a naked stranger in the changing rooms happened to Sam. Elsewhere, without giving too much away, one of Sam's friends has attended an orgy, one of mine has had sex with a first cousin.

Unlike shows like Blackadder or Up Pompeii!, we never wanted our characters to hobnob with Elizabeth I or Nero, firstly because it wouldn't happen to our schlubs (it would be like Mark and Jeremy from Peep Show hanging out with Obama) and secondly because the show wouldn't be about the anonymous, timeless faff of big-city life anymore. It would be more about life then than about life now. Ideally, it's about both. So, for example, when Cynthia, the boys' neighbour, starts dating a gladiator (played by Danny Dyer), we tried to write it as though one of our female friends had started going out with Anton Ferdinand. Or, maybe more accurately, with Danny Dyer. And when the boys excitedly join the festival of Saturnalia in the Forum in episode 6, we wanted it to feel like New Year's Eve in Trafalgar Square.

Essentially, we stripped out anything that would require a Classics degree or an IMDB summary of I, Claudius to decode. At all costs we wanted to avoid the clichéd sense of Romans on telly that we're usually exposed to – a gaggle of portentous English luvvies eating dormice and plotting to kill each other. While the social mores under examination in Plebs are probably more contemporary than classical, and the dialogue owes more to Seinfeld than Cicero, there is hopefully something pretty timeless about life at the bottom of the heap. Certainly, we found that the opportunity to present recognisable people and predicaments in a radically different context heightens the absurdity and makes very normal things more vivid and, somehow, a little bit funnier. And that's true whether someone's calling a centurion a knob in 27BC or a policeman a pleb in 2012.

'Plebs' begins tomorrow night at 10pm on ITV2

Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

booksReview: Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments