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

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

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