Thursday, 22 July 2010

Old Harry's Game: Series 2, Episode 3

I'm going away today for the weekend so I won't be able to reply to comments, but I'll be back next week with my regular Spartacus post.

Thanks to Erika for lending me the CDs!

Old Harry’s Game is a radio comedy series that has aired seven series on BBC Radio 4 between 1995 and 2009. It’s written by Andy Hamilton, writer and producer of Drop the Dead Donkey and, more recently, Outnumbered. The series is set in Hell and follows the trials and tribulations of Satan, his personal assistant (Gary the demon in Series 1, Scumspawn from Series 2 onwards), Thomas, the most repulsive human being ever to have lived, and the Professor, a very good man and an academic who has ended up in Hell because he is an atheist. James Grout, who played the Professor, was not able to take part after the Christmas Special that followed Series 4, so Series 5 focuses on Satan’s doings in the world of the living and Series 6 and 7 replace the Professor with Edith, another academic played by Annette Crosbie.

The series’ depiction of Hell basically follows the medieval Christian conception of Hell; Satan has horns and hooves, it’s full of fiery pits where horrible physical tortures are visited upon condemned souls and the demons come in various disgusting shapes and sizes, sometimes with poisonous snot. It does incorporate some elements of the Classical Hades, however, as Cerberus appears occasionally as Satan’s pet, who must be taken for a walk with all his leads.

The early series focussed on the philosophical debates between the Professor, who was convinced that there was some good in everybody and that humans were essentially worthy, and Satan, who disagreed. Considering that just about everyone who has ever lived except for infants and Saint Peter (who seems to have covered some things up) seems to be in Hell, Satan has some pretty strong arguments in his favour, though the Professor usually finds a way to win anyway.

Part of the fun of the series, aside from Satan’s inventive punishments (all the Popes are eternally nine months pregnant, for example) is that it often features famous historical figures, who usually turn out to be less praiseworthy than the Professor hopes. The most fun of these, who crops up briefly in nearly every series, is Jane Austen, who always appears in a terrible temper, screaming abuse (usually ‘tosser’, which is about as strong as you get on Radio 4) and picking fights whenever possible.

One of the ongoing storylines in Series 2 followed Satan’s attempt to find a new personal assistant following the unfortunate insurrection of Gary at the end of Series 1. Scumspawn, a rather pathetic demon played by Gus from Drop the Dead Donkey who is in love with Satan, eventually gets the job, but Satan tries for quite a while to find an alternative and trials several possible candidates, including an evil dolphin and a robot. He also mentions having rejected a hydra whose eight heads were interested in the position as a job-share. One of these candidates, the only mortal, is the Emperor Nero.

The episode in question opens with some athletic Games, which in Satan’s realm, are closer to ancient Roman Games than modern sports, because, as Satan observes, the Romans did know how to enjoy themselves, and there were no queues for toilets at the Collosseum. It is presumably this that gives him the idea to hire Nero as his personal assistant.

Satan describes Nero as a good administrator yet totally ruthless and horribly perverted (and observes that a Roman could maybe put in a few roads). The only mortal to be considered for the job, ‘he murdered his mother and his stepfather, trampled one of his wives to death, burned down Rome for the insurance and fed thousands of innocent people to lions. If that’s not an impressive CV I don’t know what is’ declares Satan. Apart from the bit about the insurance, this is pretty accurate. Satan admires Nero because he doesn’t try to cover up his evil, but is honest about it. When Nero appears, he is just as arrogant and unpleasant as you might expect, wanting to crucify the Professor for not kneeling before him and removing the vocal chords from the country and western singers.

It can’t last, though, because unfortunately, despite some fairly strong evidence to the contrary, Nero thinks he’s a god. Satan tries to point out that just because ‘a bunch of fat Italians wearing sheets give you a certificate’ it doesn’t mean you’re a deity, but to no avail. (The series is based on Christian concepts of Heaven and Hell so of course, anyone who is not a Christian is in for a nasty shock, but so are most the Christians, mainly for ignoring certain commandments involving loving others. Overall, the show displays the most sympathy with the Professor and Edith’s arguments in favour of atheism).

Nero eventually has to be fired after he covers Hell in statues of himself, in one of which he’s shagging Pegasus. And on an unrelated note, this episode ends rather satisfyingly with the Professor punching Thomas several times as his patience is finally stretched a little too far.

The real Nero. The sculptor's done his best, but he wasn't really a looker, was he?!

The representation of Nero here is more or less what we’ve come to expect and is mostly justified, though note again the obsession with Roman emperors having sex with animals, something none of them, as far as I am aware, are ever accused of doing (I suspect this is a comic exaggeration of the story about Caligula wanting to make his horse a senator). Like Spartacus, the series presents Romans as the most depraved of all humans, but since it focuses on their violent side, this is a little more justified than television’s obsession with orgies (which would not be nearly so much fun on radio). It is certainly less surprising to find inhabitants of ancient Rome among the damned than, say, Jane Austen, which is perhaps why they appear so rarely - without the shock factor it's not so funny - but when the series needed to find the most depraved man in history, this was the first place they looked. Ancient Rome is, once again, a byword for depravity. One of these days I'll start some kind of Roman rehabilitation campaign...


  1. On Nero and the insurance:

    Dio 62.18, ‘he would not be likely to abstain from any of the most terrible crimes, in order that he might gain money’;
    Suet. Nero 38, ‘Furthermore, to gain from this calamity too all the spoil and booty possible, while promising the removal of the debris and dead bodies free of cost he allowed no one to approach the ruins of his own property; and from the contributions which he not only received, but even demanded, he nearly bankrupted the provinces and exhausted the resources of individuals’.

    There is also the more common argument that this is to enable the rebuilding of the city, like Martial’s epigram on a private house: “Tongilianus, you paid two hundred for your house; An accident much common in this city destroyed it. You collected ten times more. Doesn't it see, that you set fire to your own house, Tongilianus”.


  2. So they really did have insurance?! Wonder if they also had insurance salespeople.... ;)

  3. Yes, although in different terms. You certainly had life insurance through the collegia (funeraticium). I had a paper about the rental markets and sale of land for the imperial fora in Rome, and you have dodgy insurance types scattered throughout the references.



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