The Romans ***

A comedy drama in which the Doctor and Vicki meet Nero, while Ian and Barbara are sold into slavery

Comments
Doctor Who story guide
Mark Braxton
Mark Braxton
The Romans ***

"I've got a friend who specialises in trouble. He dives in and usually finds a way. I think I'll take a leaf out of his book, for once" - Ian

Storyline
A Roman holiday in AD 64 proves anything but relaxing for the time travellers. Ian and Barbara are kidnapped by slave-traders, while the Doctor, accompanying Vicki, is mistaken for murdered musician Maximus Pettulian and invited to perform at Emperor Nero's court. Surviving an assassination attempt, the Doctor then has to conceal his inability to play the lyre. Later, Barbara is auctioned to Nero's slave-buyer Tavius, and Ian is put to work on a galley, then forced to train as a gladiator after his ship is wrecked in a storm …

First UK transmissions
1. The Slave Traders - Saturday 16 January 1965
2. All Roads Lead to Rome - Saturday 23 January 1965
3. Conspiracy - Saturday 30 January 1965
4. Inferno - Saturday 6 February 1965

Production
Filming: November 1964 at Ealing Studios
Studio recording: December 1964/January 1965 at Riverside 1

Cast
Doctor Who - William Hartnell
Barbara Wright - Jacqueline Hill
Ian Chesterton - William Russell
Vicki - Maureen O'Brien
Nero - Derek Francis
Tavius - Michael Peake
Poppaea - Kay Patrick
Delos - Peter Diamond
Sevcheria - Derek Sydney
Didius - Nicholas Evans
Centurion - Dennis Edwards
Stallholder - Margot Thomas
Slave buyer - Edward Kelsey
Maximus Pettulian - Bart Allison
Ascaris - Barry Jackson
Slave - Dorothy-Rose Gribble
Galley master - Gertan Klauber
Tigilinus - Brian Proudfoot
Locusta - Ann Tirard

Crew
Writer/story editor - Dennis Spooner
Incidental music - Raymond Jones
Designer - Raymond P Cusick
Producer - Verity Lambert
Director - Christopher Barry

RT Review by Mark Braxton
So… what has The Romans ever given us? Well, for starters, the first outright emphasis on humour in a Doctor Who story. Then there's the sprightly script from Dennis Spooner, who's not afraid to mix and match, bringing all his Hancock apprenticeship to bear on the riot and debauchery. And let's not forget the spirited interplay of the leads, in places among the most naturalistic in the show's history.

In the light of its innovations, then, the handed-down consensus that The Romans is "a bit silly" is harsh, to say the least.

As you would expect from the setting, there's a wide range of horrific material: deaths by dagger, arson, enslavement, poisoning and sexual intimidation, plus a flaming torch in the face for one poor unfortunate. So the need for light relief in this flagship family show is greater than ever. That Spooner manages this without recourse to the coarse (we could so easily have had Up Pompeii!) does him immense credit. An over-fondness for punning, perhaps, but it all adds to the playfulness.

Speaking of which, the Doctor is never more twinkle-eyed and mischievous than here. Hartnell handles the great swathes of script - and comic timing - with equal aplomb. He was already well known for roles in Carry On Sergeant and The Army Game, so this is almost like a homecoming, and he visibly enjoys the change of tone.

Of course, his derisive snickering doesn't always come across as appropriate ("So you want to fight, do you? Ha-ha!" "I'm a would-be murderer, am I? Mmm, hmm-hmm" "My fault [Rome being burnt down] … hmm hmm, ha-ha, hoo-hoo!").

There are the customary Hartnell howlers, too. When his recall does let him down, Maureen O'Brien is adept enough as an actress to dovetail with his foibles. But more delightful even than the Doctor/Vicki exchanges are the more relaxed moments between Ian and Barbara. Laughter, like drunkenness, is a difficult thing for actors to sell, but Jacqueline Hill's giggling when Barbara plays a trick on Ian is utterly convincing. It's a shame the writers didn't see fit to develop their relationship in the direction that this story was clearly taking it. In the blissed-out, sensual atmosphere of the Roman villa, their interaction is honest, romantic, even touching.

The Roman characters tessellate with Spooner's design admirably, from Derek Francis's lusty twit of an emperor and Derek Sydney's lurking Sevcheria to Ann Tirard's magnificently sour-faced Locusta. And Michael Peake's secretive Tavius is an ace up the sleeve. We're unsure of his motives right till the end, when his disclosure (it's something you just wouldn't see today) is a genuine surprise.

Well-rounded and neatly structured, The Romans may not get it exactly right, but it's still a fruity slurp from the chalice of adventure, and an invigorating one at that. Sanitas bona!

- - -

Radio Times archive material

Introductory feature

RT billings 
1. The Slave Traders
2. All Roads Lead to Rome
3. Conspiracy
4. Inferno

[Available on BBC DVD; soundtrack available on BBC Audio CD]

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