Stylax is dead. Actually. Within seconds of Plebs series four, Joel Fry’s cheeky man-child is killed off in merciless fantastic fashion (which we won’t spoil here).
And it’s not the only change around the ITV2 classical sitcom’s stone-paved corner: Joel Fry’s character is soon replaced by a new lead (Jason, played by Jonathan Pointing), who joins Marcus (Tom Rosenthal) and Grumio (Ryan Sampson) as they renovate a public toilet into a wine bar.
Returning writers Sam Leifer and Tom Basden (who also plays waterboyman Aurelius) are still in charge, but the winning Plebs formula has undoubtedly been tampered with. The roman potty humour remains gloriously unflushed (quite literally now) but with new characters, new dynamics between the leading Roman triumvirate and the fundamental change of situation in the sitcom all present a revolution of Augustan proportions.
The result? Don’t worry, series four does not represent the collapse of this Roman comedy. Far from it: the writing is brilliantly revolting and sharp as what’s come before, performances from likes of Sampson serve up more belly laughs than ever and the comedy’s string of standout guest stars are perfectly cast.
There’s just one problem…
The new pleb on the block is no Stylax
True, nobody wanted to see a new actor take on a pale imitation of Joel Fry’s blindly optimistic Stylax. But Jason, a blonde and dim-witted builder, is very different to his predecessor.
“He’s got much more of an Essex vibe about him. He’s more Love Island really – we’ve grabbed somebody from another ITV2 show and stuck them in Plebs,” jokes Tom Rosenthal to RadioTimes.com.
“He’s a bit of a dumb dumb, but he’s annoyingly good looking – he makes myself and Grumio look even uglier. He’s got that lovable idiot thing that Joey Essex has got going on in that he doesn’t understand a lot, but you can’t help but like him. I’m pretty convinced after 10 minutes of watching him you’re going to be on his side.”
But here’s the thing: after watching two episodes of the new series I still wasn’t. And it’s not even because I was mourning Stylax. Why? Jason is simply too much of a shallow lad to be truly likeable.
While Stylax and Jason both share a penchant for incessant girl-chasing, Stylax’s goofiness seemingly stacked the odds against him, whereas Jason is by no means an underdog.
He is a simpleton, but Jason is too good-looking to be on the fringes – he starts the series with a girlfriend and seems to have little problem picking up girls. And that makes him less of an outsider than the others and, crucially, less funny.
Take this scene: one of Jason’s first stories sees him interviewing a band of potential waitresses for the boy’s new wine bar. His questions? All along the lines of ‘are you single?’ or ‘are you not a lesbian?’. Stylax could have made such a scene work with his boyish innocence and awkwardness perhaps, but Jason? If not coming across as plain creepy, he makes the whole sequence feel outdated and unoriginal, something Joey Tribbiani – rather than Joey Essex – did funnier 20 years ago.
But it’s not all bad news, though…
There’s now a fourth pleb: Aurelius the water boy man
Jason may not be Stylax’s successor but fortunately Tom Basden’s socially-inept and sheepish waterboy returns as a de facto fourth lead, working front-of-house in the boy’s new wine bar.
And it’s a genius move on the writers’ part (which includes Basden himself): Aurelius is at his panicky best when put under pressure and including him in main storylines, such as covering up a semi-accidental murder, pushes him to the limit. It’s sardonic, maybe. But undoubtedly hilarious.
And even better, not only will Aurelius enjoy more screen-time, but many scene-stealing recurring characters crop up more often in new episodes. “It feels like it’s become a bit more of a gang show. It’s got a new vibe and that is exciting,” explains Rosenthal.
“Plebs has always had a kind of American feel to it where they always wanted a big world of characters. We’ve got the likes of Karl Theobald [Landlord] and his heavy Tom Davis [who plays Landlord’s henchman Davus], this amazing talent that might come up only for a scene in an episode. They’re great performers in smaller roles, which breathes into a gang show vibe.
“Plus, if you don’t like a character there’s going to be one you do like up in a minute,” he laughs.
And, in true Plebs fashion, there’s a legion of fantastic guest stars to look out for. In particular, there’s My Family’s Robert Lindsay as a crooked property developer with a soft spot for tortoises, alongside 8 Out of 10 Cats captain Aisling Bea, The Mash Report’s Ellie Taylor and Annette Badland (who played Slitheen Margaret Blaine in Doctor Who).
But the star Rosenthal is most excited for viewers to see? “Ollie Locke!” he says. “As it turns out he’s very annoyingly a capable actor. And he’s got great hair! How did he get it so slick?”
However, there’s one character with a very different hairstyle that hunches above all others this series…
Grumio reaches new levels of Grumio
Although Aurelius and Marcus dish out more laughs than ever, there’s one standout star in upcoming episodes: that mushroom-headed slothful slave Grumio. Ryan Sampson’s food-loving buffoon steals his every scene when promoted to the wine bar’s chef – a task he takes up with a hilarious Gordon Ramsay-inspired parody.
And, as usual, Grumio isn’t far away from some serious humiliation. In the nude, of course. “Why do they want me to do that so much?!” cries Sampson in a surprisingly un-Grumio northern accent (yes, that exaggerated Sheffield drawl is only an act). “There’s a scene in this series where I’m completely naked and the other two guys are covering their n**s. But it’s in public so we’re walking down the street and I put my arms on the other two as if I’m not bothered about it. But as an actor I’m deeply bothered about it!
“There’s 30 crew who you have friendships and working relationships with, and all these extras. I’ve got to do a scene where they’re all looking at my genitals. It’s like a waking nightmare!
“They gave me a patch to put on, but it makes me look like a Ken doll, like I’ve been in some terrible accident, or like a stripper – there’s like a thong bit that goes round the back and the sticker on the front is in the shape of a love heart. It gives off these weird sexual undertones. I was walking around like I was in Spearmint Rhinos. It was just weird!”
And things are only set to get weirder for Grumio. In episode three of the series he’s “mistaken for somebody who is sort of mentally disabled”, as Sampson puts it. It’s then fundraising begins for the ‘Grumio foundation’, which leads to a marathon, which promises Plebs biggest scene to date. “It’s a really big scale episode – there were a load of extras and it looks amazing! It’s just a really great episode in visual scale and how funny it is,” says Rosenthal.
And judging from the first two episodes of the series, the third promises to hit peak Plebs. And who knows, in later episodes Jason could become a bit less laddish – less ITV2, frankly – and finally give us a character to root for (on ITV2). Rome wasn’t built in a day after all.