Well, there’s no difficulty in telling Gaius and Marcus Flavius Geminus (otherwise known as Hugh Beringar) apart in this episode, as Captain Marcus turns up in a terrible state, with some kind of nasty disease and infected feet. He’s been shipwrecked in a tsunami caused by the eruption of Vesuvius (and, presumably, related earthquakes). This means we get to see our old ancient medicinal friends, maggots!
Lupus actually wants to hire an assassin to kill Venalicius, which is rather shocking. I mean, I understand the sentiment, but that’s still a pretty dire thing to try to do, especially for a small child. But then, I'm always peculiarly sentimental about small children. Don't even get me started on Thomas Hardy...
Just to add to Marcus' troubles, he is also horribly in debt, and Gaius can't help because his farm has been destroyed by the volcano. I love the way Flavia quickly recruits Pliny the Younger to help her smuggle her valuables to Jonathan’s house when the debt collector comes. Pliny comes off very well here. From his letters, it’s surprisingly difficult to get a sense of his character, since they were written for publication and are rather self-consciously literary and keen to show off. It would be nice to think that he was as he’s portrayed here – a bit bookish, a bit pleased with himself, but ultimately kind and generous. I doubt the real Pliny would have harboured seroius romantic intentions - the kind that are respectable for children's television - towards a poor Jewish doctor’s daughter though.
We also discover that Gaius and Marcus don’t just happen to be identical twins, narratively speaking, they’re identical twins for a reason! Gaius must pretend to be Marcus to save them from the debt collector. For some reason when I was younger I, and I think a great many other children, loved stories about identical twins (I was obsessed with the Sweet Valley High books and Sister, Sister on the TV. Come to think of it, that coincided with my dolphin phase...). I don’t know what exactly appeals to children so much about this idea, but something does, though unusually here it is adults who play the identity-of-the-twin game.
The children go to stay with Pliny by the sea, where they swim with the titular dolphins and Lupus, who was a sponge diver in Greece, tries to find treasure in a sunken wreck. The diving sequences are beautiful, taking full advantage of filming in the gorgeous blue Mediterranean sea and introducing a new, pseudo-Roman way of counting seconds, substituting ‘legionaries’ for ‘Mississippi’. I say ‘pseudo-Roman’ because this is English rather than Latin but I’m sure a similar Latin word would work just as well and it sounds much less out of place than ‘Mississippi’. Some of the CGI and photoshopping on the dolphin sequences is a bit dodgey though.
Miriam and Pliny the Younger
The eventual revelation concerning the relationship between Lupus and Venalicius is genuinely surprising, which is nice. Venalicius as a helpful person is also rather surprising, and his slow, agonising death from the bends is really horrible. In this version, Lupus’s father’s death was an accident and Lupus became mute through psychological damage – I’m not sure what happened to Lupus’ father in the book, but since Book!Venalicius cut Lupus’ tongue out it is unexpected to find Venalicius trying to help them and to see Lupus forgive him. Although, on the other hand, the greater the crime, the more virtuous the forgiveness, and it allows the first weight to be lifted from Lupus' mind.
Best thing of all about the episode though – actual spoken Greek! I still have trouble recognising spoken Greek but I suspect this was proper ancient Greek. I don’t think I’ve ever seen subtitles in a British children’s programme before – brilliant stuff!