Plebs is back: as sharply written, funny and filthy as ever…

Series three of the ITV2 comedy sees Marcus, Stylax and Grumio on the wrong end of a lion, while guest stars Maureen Lipman and Michelle Keegan shine, says Paul Jones

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“Have there ever been more anuses in a press conference?” asks Maureen Lipman, and it’s a good question. The last ten minutes of chat at the Plebs series three launch have been entirely focused on a graphic scene towards the end of the first episode and it’s fair to say that the only thing giving the word “anus” a run for its money is the phrase “lion-fingering”. 

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Writer Sam Leifer has been describing the intricate plotting and re-plotting that was required to get from point A – the boys’ attempts to land coveted tickets to the Roman Games – to point B – the lion’s anus – demonstrating a) how devoted he and co-writer/star Tom Basden are to setting up those sorts of big comedy pay-offs and b) how keen they were to include this specific scene in which said l. gets an f. plunged into it’s a. 

Those who know and love ITV2’s Ancient Roman comedy Plebs will be pretty familiar with this kind of thing (although you could argue that even Plebs has breached a new frontier in this case). We’ve seen characters sharing bottom sponges, crawling through unflushed sewers and, in this series, making blue cheese in the loo. And yet, as funny as much of that thinking man’s toilet humour has been, Basden and Leifer are being a bit modest when they focus on those moments. Because the thing that raises Plebs above the level of other shows and makes it, for me, second only to Partridge among current British TV comedies, is the characters they’ve created, and the performances their three stars turn in. 

Ryan Sampson as shiftless slave Grumio is impossible not to love, with his mushroom haircut, deadpan Rotherham delivery, flashes of down-to-earth wisdom and an almost total refusal to do any work ever. Tom Rosenthal as Marcus – slightly desperate and obsessive about women and vaguely scared of most things – is nominally the hapless hero of the piece, but my favourite is Joel Fry, who manages to play sex-obsessed Stylax as an endearingly excitable puppy, who sees everything in the world new each day. 

The supporting cast is just as good. Co-writer Basden plays the tightly wound Waterboy – “Waterman!” – in the same office where Stylax and Marcus are known as Shredder and Copier, while Doon Mackichan is irresistible as their dominatrix boss Flavia. Karl Theobald as Landlord, the boys’ landlord – who is almost certainly involved in some serious organised crime – manages to be utterly ruthless but in a fun, breezy way. 

Guest-stars are equally well chosen and their parts just as perfectly written. In previous series, Danny Dyer, Simon Callow and Neil Stuke have been among the stand-outs and this time we get Michelle Keegan as a vestal virgin who proves to be anything but and Lipman, who is simply spot on as Landlord’s formidable replacement Landlady. She can’t have been serious about her distaste for the anus talk because she plays the sweariest character on the show, and apparently some of what came out of her mouth had to be cut (that’s not quite the c-word she used, but it’s close). 

Add to all that the expensive-looking sets that bring the streets of Ancient Rome to life, the inspired decision to have everyone talk in a variety of regional British accents (but still use Roman words like denari and salvé), and the ska reggae soundtrack, which should be incongruous but couldn’t be less so, and you have a comedy gem that the Emperor himself would be proud of, let alone ITV2.

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Series three of Plebs starts with a double bill at 10pm on Monday 4th April on ITV2