Chelmsford 123: Arriverderci Roma!

Chelmsford 123 was a sitcom that ran for two series in the 1980s, currently available to view on 4oD in the UK. It was good fun - some episodes were better than others, obviously - but my two favourite episodes were the first one and the last one, because those two included some Latin.

The first episode opens, in an obvious homage to I, Claudius, at the Emperor's dining room in the middle of a feast. This Rome is the bog-standard city of vice and immoral behaviour so often shown in popular culture - the dinner has a 'prostitute course', for example. Technically, since the show is set in AD 123, this is the Emperor Hadrian, but he bears almost no resemblence to anything we know about Hadrian, except that they both have beards. This emperor is a combination of all the traits associated, in the popular imagination, with Roman emperors - so he's completely mad, he's married to a horse ('Portia'), divorced from a goat ('there were kids involved') and having an affair with a sheep.

While the characters are in Rome, they speak in Latin, with subtitles. Although the Latin is accurate (and pronounced in the correct Classical style), the jokes are all based on the English translation, as in the 'kids' example, though several jokes are also based around the fact that it's just funny to hear a rude word in a dead language - 'testiculos' for 'bollocks', for example (though I'm not 100% sure this is right...). It's a rather more fun way to practise Latin than grammar exercises though - I wish more sitcoms would film sequences in Latin.

The British characters, of course, speak English, as do the Roman characters when they arrive in Briton (supposedly they've learned the local language to try to blend in - highly unlikely, but unlike me, most of the country doesn't want to watch a sitcom filmed entirely in Latin). There are some more linguistic jokes in this episode, as the Romans struggle to get the hang of the language and mistake 'piss off' for a greeting.

Then there's this - one of the funniest things I've seen on a sitcom. But then, I have a very bad sense of humour. (The Doctor here is Tom Baker's Doctor - demonstrating that for many, many people, pre-David Tennant, Tom Baker really was THE Doctor, the best known and best loved of the lot).

I tend to find the Roman sequences funnier than the British ones in Chelmsford 123. Perhaps it's because the Roman sequences mock the popular perception of ancient Rome and previous Roman epics (chiefly I, Claudius of course) while the British sequences rely more on fairly generic pub humour involving blind men being cheated at cards and one very stupid character who doesn't understand anything (though his observation that all Romans are called Marcus did amuse me). Chief Badvok's 'girlfriend' is also an intensely irritating character (dropped for the second series), made more so by the inappropriateness of an historical character having a 'girlfriend' rather than a wife or mistress/concubine. ('Boy/girlfriends' in the modern sense don't exist in many historical societies).

By the end of the first episode, our Roman characters, Aulus and Grasientus, have started to settle in (despite the unfortunate 'piss off' misunderstanding) and the relationship between Badvok and Aulus - official emnity with an underlying sense of friendship only occasionally disturbed by attempts on each other's lives - has been firmly established. The rest of the series continues in a fun, silly vein, though sadly without the Latin, which doesn't reappear until the very last episode...


  1. Oh, I was supposed to be sorting that out for you, wasn't I? Do you still need it?

    The rain dance is one of the funnioest things I've seen on tv.

  2. The paper got rejected, so it's OK, I don't need it, though it would be great to have it for the blog of course! ;) I haven't seen the rain dance in years - must have a look around the internet for it.

  3. I'd clocked this too.

    Did you know that 4oD is now available on YouTube? You should be able to get a slightly faster version of it there. (FWIW I generally find it's only the adverts on 4oD that run slowly - the programmes are generally OK).


  4. Ooh, excellent, I'll track it down on You Tube. Thanks Matt!


Post a Comment