Serial M:
The Romans

Plot

Whilst vacationing in AD 64 Rome, Ian and Barbara are kidnapped and sold as slaves. Ian ends up on a doomed galley ship, while Barbara becomes a handmaiden in Nero's palace, pursued by the lusty Caesar himself. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Vicki are travelling to Rome, unaware of their friends' plight. On the road, they discover the body of a murdered musician named Maximus Pettulian. The Doctor decides to investigate by masquerading as Pettulian, unaware that he is embroiling himself in a conspiracy against Nero -- and in the events which culminate in the Great Fire of Rome.

Production

The idea of setting a Doctor Who story in Roman times had been under consideration at least as early as the spring of 1964. On April 14th, a document was issued which outlined possible adventures should Doctor Who proceed to a second recording block; the penultimate serial, to consist of four episodes, was described as “Past” and “Roman”. On August 31st, Dennis Spooner was commissioned to write The Romans, though it's unclear whether this was spawned from the production team's earlier plans, or was an independent creation. By this point in time, Spooner -- having recently completed The Reign Of Terror -- had been appointed the successor to David Whitaker as Doctor Who's story editor, although the post would not officially change hands until October 31st. With a new companion, Vicki, being introduced in Whitaker's The Rescue, it was agreed that The Romans should follow it into production so that Spooner could help define the character.

Now that Doctor Who was well-established, producer Verity Lambert was keen to test the boundaries of its format. Aware of Spooner's humorous tendencies, she suggested that The Romans might be an appropriate venue to attempt a comedic Doctor Who story. The original idea was to spoof the 1951 film Quo Vadis, in which a Roman commander's love for a Christian woman brought him into conflict with Emperor Nero. Spooner soon modified his approach after discovering that Carry On Cleo -- the latest entry in the Carry On film franchise, which would be in theatres shortly before The Romans started airing on television -- was also being designed as a Quo Vadis parody. Nonetheless, he retained the idea of setting his scripts at the time of the Great Fire of Rome.

Dennis Spooner eschewed historical accuracy in favour of popular myth

Whereas previous Doctor Who historical adventures had paid often scrupulous attention to an accurate portrayal of events, Spooner eschewed this approach in favour of embracing popular myth. The real inferno burned over nine days in July of the year AD 64. It left ten of Rome's fourteen districts partially or completely destroyed; amongst the structures which fell to the blaze was Nero's palace, the Domus Transitoria. According to the historian Tacitus, Nero was in Antium when the fire broke out, and blamed the disaster on the widely-persecuted Christian sect. However, it was popularly rumoured that Nero had engineered the holocaust in order to rebuild Rome to his own design; in particular, he soon embarked on the construction of a mammoth new palace, the Domus Aurea or Golden House. The legend of Nero fiddling while Rome burned appeared in no historical account, although both Tacitus and Suetonius reported stories of the Caesar singing during the conflagration.

Spooner also drew liberally from true history to inspire his characters. In addition to Nero and his wife Poppaea, Locusta did allegedly help Nero poison some of his enemies, including his adoptive father, Emperor Claudius, and his step-brother, Britannicus. Her position as “court poisoner”, on the other hand, was invented. Flavius Guiscard was named for the eleventh-century Norman adventurer Robert Guiscard, while Delos was so-called after the Greek island. Tigilinus, the ill-fated cup-bearer, drew his name from the commander of Nero's imperial bodyguard. In fact, Tigilinus' character was a late addition to Spooner's scripts; originally, the Doctor saved Nero from being poisoned by accidentally knocking over the Caesar's goblet. A late revision was to the end of the scene in which the schoolteachers were kidnapped, making it not Sevcheria but Barbara who knocked Ian unconscious.

It was originally thought that Richard Martin -- who had recently directed The Dalek Invasion Of Earth -- would handle The Romans. However, by October it was agreed that The Rescue and The Romans would both use the same production team, so that they could essentially be made as a six-part serial. As such, the director's job went to Christopher Barry, who was also handling The Rescue. Cast as Nero was Carry On regular Derek Francis, a friend of Jacqueline Hill's for whom a Doctor Who role had been sought since the programme's earliest days. Spooner was surprised by the choice: Nero was only twenty-six at the time of the Great Fire, whereas Francis would be forty-one by the time The Romans entered production.

Work on the serial began at the BBC Television Film Studios in Ealing, London, where model shots and the burning map of Rome were filmed on November 17th and 18th. Episode one, The Slave Traders, was then recorded in Riverside Studio 1 -- where all four parts would be housed -- on December 18th. Cast and crew then enjoyed a week off for Christmas. The second installment, All Roads Lead To Rome, was taped on January 1st, 1965. Barry was unhappy with Nero's introductory scene, and during the next week there was discussion of remounting it while making Conspiracy on the 8th; however, this does not appear to have occurred. Production wrapped with the final episode, Inferno, on January 15th.

This was the final time Mervyn Pinfield was listed as associate producer

Unusually, no story editor was named on-screen during The Romans; this was done to avoid giving Spooner a dual credit. The Romans was the final serial for which Mervyn Pinfield would be listed as associate producer, although he had largely ceased his involvement with Doctor Who as of The Dalek Invasion Of Earth, at the end of the first recording block in October. Pinfield formally stepped down on January 11th.

Meanwhile, the broadcast of The Romans part one on January 16th established another milestone for Doctor Who, as it rose to a new peak of seventh place amongst all programmes airing that week. With Doctor Who now earning consistently high ratings, Verity Lambert was informed on January 11th that the second recording block was to be extended from twenty-six episodes to thirty-five. Furthermore, a third production block was already being guaranteed. The final five episodes of the second block would be held over to start Doctor Who's third season in September.

Sources
  • Doctor Who Magazine #251, 7th May 1997, “Archive: The Romans” by Andrew Pixley, Panini UK Ltd.
  • Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition #7, 12th May 2004, “I'm Into Something Good” by Andrew Pixley, Panini Publishing Ltd.
  • Doctor Who: The Complete History #4, 2017, “Story 12: The Romans”, edited by Mark Wright, Hachette Partworks Ltd.
  • Doctor Who: The Handbook: The First Doctor by David J Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker (1994), Virgin Publishing.
  • Doctor Who: The Sixties by David J Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker (1992), Virgin Publishing.

Original Transmission
1: The Slave Traders
Date 16th Jan 1965
Time 5.40pm
Duration 24'14"
Viewers (more) 13.0m (7th)
· BBC1 13.0m
Appreciation 53%
2: All Roads Lead To Rome
Date 23rd Jan 1965
Time 5.40pm
Duration 23'14"
Viewers (more) 11.5m (15th)
· BBC1 11.5m
Appreciation 51%
3: Conspiracy
Date 30th Jan 1965
Time 5.40pm
Duration 26'18"
Viewers (more) 10.0m (28th)
· BBC1 10.0m
Appreciation 50%
4: Inferno
Date 6th Feb 1965
Time 5.40pm
Duration 23'08"
Viewers (more) 12.0m (13th)
· BBC1 12.0m
Appreciation 50%


Cast
Dr Who
William Hartnell (bio)
Ian Chesterton
William Russell (bio)
Barbara Wright
Jacqueline Hill (bio)
(more)
Vicki
Maureen O'Brien (bio)
Sevcheria
Derek Sydney
Didius
Nicholas Evans
Centurion
Dennis Edwards
Stall Holder
Margot Thomas
Slave Buyer
Edward Kelsey
Maximus Pettulian
Bart Allison
Ascaris
Barry Jackson
Delos
Peter Diamond
Tavius
Michael Peake
Woman Slave
Dorothy-Rose Gribble
Galley Master
Gertan Klauber
1st Man in Market
Ernest Jennings
2nd Man in Market
John Caesar
Court Messenger
Tony Lambden
Nero
Derek Francis
Tigilinus
Brian Proudfoot
Poppaea
Kay Patrick
Locusta
Ann Tirard


Crew
Written by
Dennis Spooner (bio)
Directed by
Christopher Barry (bio)
(more)

Title music by
Ron Grainer
with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Incidental music composed and conducted by
Raymond Jones
Fight Arranger
Peter Diamond
Costumes Supervised by
Daphne Dare
Make-up Supervised by
Sonia Markham
Lighting
Howard King
Sound
Richard Chubb
Designer
Raymond P Cusick
Associate Producer
Mervyn Pinfield (bio)
Producer
Verity Lambert (bio)

Updated 20th May 2020