The Version Interview... Tom Rosenthal on series 3 of itv2's Plebs
25BC Rome. One year on in the eternal city… Tempus fugit. Emperor Augustus Caesar is still the most powerful man in the known world. And languishing somewhere near the other end of the food chain are three lowly plebs: Marcus, Stylax and their feckless slave, Grumio (Tom Rosenthal, Joel Fry and Ryan Sampson). As the ancestors of ‘generation rent’, they live in a squalid block in the worst part of town – presided over by the ruthless Landlady (Maureen Lipman).
They work dead-end jobs for Rome’s third largest grain supply company. And though the Games are in town, they can’t get tickets for any event – not even the pig chase. But an encounter with a fiery Gallic activist, Delphine (Bella Dayne) might at least improve Marcus’ romantic stakes. Could she possibly become his Gaul-friend? Or is she just a bit too real for him?
As well as their regular nemeses, this year our Plebs encounter a legion of new Roman recruits: visiting parents (Samantha Spiro, Danny Webb, Steve Edge), a brazen Vestal Virgin (Michelle Keegan), a doping discus thrower (Ingrid Oliver), a theatrical grande dame (Miriam Margolyes) and an ancient weatherman (David Bamber). Let the Games begin!
Plebs is back and Tom Rosenthal told us all about it...
Q: Is it good to be back?
A: Good? It’s excellent to be back with the gang. We know each other very well now; I always say it’s quite nice that we’ve worked together for this amount of time and don’t seem to hate each other. I think that’s an achievement because each shoot is six to eight weeks, and that’s a long time to spend with anybody, really. We do seem to be friends, and we do seem to actually hang out when we’re not wearing togas as well, back home, so I always count that as an achievement.
Q: In between series you all go off and do other things, does that create a bit of competition between you?
A: It’s like a friendly competition! It’s like... oh, well done Joel, you’ve gone off to do a little show, pretending to be a serious man in a made-up country with an unpronounceable name, bravo… but, you know, me and Ryan have made our own TV shows, so… you know, two fingers up to you! You can’t be a diva when you’ve just been filming a scene where you’ve been stark bollock naked, attacking a guard or had some sort of terrible sexual misadventure. I do think that the whole tone of the show, and the reason the show resonates to a certain extent, is that we don’t take ourselves too seriously at all. I think the worst mistake you can make if you’re trying to make a comedy is to be too worried about how you will be perceived. We are happy to make complete idiots of ourselves really.
Q: Why do you think the show has become such a success?
A: Well, being inside it, I would say it’s the amount of work and diligence and care the creators take over it. Sam, who writes and directs it, he is on top of absolutely everything that happens 4 with Plebs, he sort of lives and breathes Plebs. His brother is the producer, he obviously supports his brother’s vision in any way he can, and Tom, the co-writer, is an extremely hard worker, they both work far too hard for a human being, and when you put that much care and attention into something, it’s unlikely that it’s going to be totally shit. And they very rarely drop the ball, they work really hard to make sure they get the best people, and it’s also ambitious, it doesn’t look like other comedy shows, you know?
Q: It’s basically about guys finding their way…
A: Basically, yes. We’re just trying to make some money and get with girls or whatever and try and find a better deal, you know.
Q: What do you make of the filthy jokes?
A: Er, my grandparents have to watch it with the sound off, or not at all! I mean, I was absolutely fine, but my parents have come to both screenings of the series and were generally “Yay!” or similar. But there was the scene where I had to perform oral sex on a girl, and I saw my sort of sinewy back with this kind of lizard-like approach, and my neck’s all tense and I’m like, ‘No one should ever have to see themselves doing that, especially with their parents.’ People shouldn’t have to go through that experience, that is the price of being in a low, bawdy comedy!
Q: Are any of the gags off-limits?
A: Obviously being based in Ancient Rome, you can get away with a lot more. There’s a way higher ratio of deaths in Plebs than there is in Benidorm for example, a lot more amputations, lot more sort of weird stuff to animals.
Q: How do you feel doing sex scenes?
A: I know that everyone says this, but they’re not as exciting as you’d think. They’re a bit weird because you’re surrounded by 25 Bulgarian guys with heavy machinery who are filming you manufacturing this sexual encounter. Generally I’m just worried about getting my arm in the right place and that the camera can see my stupid, funny face. I apologise to any girl who has to have a sex scene with me, because I’m sure it’s deeply unpleasant experience. But for me I sort of switch off and I don’t see it as a sexual encounter because I’m just worried about it being funny really, do you know what I mean? You break people down into being props, rather than actors. It’s the least sensitive thing ever, and obviously you can’t really brag about it to your mates and go, “I got off with this girl,” because it doesn’t really count. Know what I mean? There’s nothing to benefit from, and as I say it’s probably much worse for them than it is for me.
Q: Are the other guys anything like their characters?
A: I guess when Joel gets really drunk on a night out and he’s dancing around to music, he’s got a bit of Stylax, he’s got a lot of Stylax’s dance moves. He’s a good mover! I’ve never seen Ryan do anything like Grumio, ever. Sometimes he will look at you like that, that’s the only time. That sort of Grumio look when I tell him to clean the bloody room and he doesn’t want to. But generally he’s a complete comedian. So no, I don’t think they are like their characters, which is a testament to their ability as actors, really.
Q: Describe series three of Plebs in three words.
A: Series three in three words. Three words is not enough words. I want it to be a sentence. I like a three word sentence. I’m going to have a think because I’ll read this and think, “That’s bullshit! Those are the worst three words you could pick!” OK, here goes…Plebs series three - now with lions!
Plebs is back tonight, 10pm on itv2.