As prescient as a hot button shop, The Grandeur That Was Rome is also proper Avengers stuff – arcane, bonkers, camp, with implausible undercover work and mad hair. Even before the opening credits have flipped into view (and no pre-credits murder this time, thankfully) we’ve been treated to Roman senators, gladiators, toasts uttered in Latin and drunk in wine, plus a vague threat to destroy Western civilisation – just like the Romans, er, didn’t.
After the credits we’re in a different milieu, another dreadful British company captained by a glib posh chap (Ian Shand) which is not doing quite as well as he says, and run by an ineffectual number two (Kenneth Kealing). The plot – and here things do foreshadow future developments – concerns a feed company being used as a front to introduce poisons designed to kill off specific eco-systems (no earthworms equals, down the line, no food) with a view to forcing society to turn on itself in a series of ugly food riots. After which a strong man steps in to clean up, is the big idea.
Financing all this is a retired oligarch (Hugh Burden), who now fancies himself as a modern Caesar and goes by the name of Bruno. His money also finances a modern fascist party, run by aide-de-campe Marcus (John Flint). Dirty money, contaminated food, a spoiled eco-system, the well of political discourse poisoned, populist right wing parties, how very 20-teens. And if you want to see Bruno’s mad scheme – of spreading “the grandeur that was Rome” – as a kind of European Union in utero idea, that’s there for the picking too.
Having spent time together looking down a microscope while discussing cereal production, ergotism (a disease caused by infected rye), the role of the press in fanning up a scare and so on, in detail modern TV shows would consider excessive, Steed and Gale are soon in their usual undercover poses – she at the feed company from where mad Bruno is hoping to initiate armageddon by means of the botulinus toxin, he inside the cod-Roman fortress itself (though god knows how he got there) flattering the would-be emperor with all manner of camp chat.
There is good and bad in this episode – an entertainingly fruity idea is slightly ham-fistedly brought off, and it’s really not helped by various fluffs by the cast, some of them being better at ad-libbing their way out of trouble than others. Burden and Flint boom away like men who have shouted at the back wall of provincial theatres for too long. And there’s a great giggle to be had when the script calls for an orgy. In the 1960s version of bacchanalia girls are chucked under the chin, a grape is peeled, a goblet quaffed, it’s all very decorous.
The concluding fight – men in togas hitting each other with blunt objects – is refreshingly different, and the episode finishes with a flourish as Gale and Steed trade epithets in Latin.
Vigorous and nutty, though with no real sense of peril, it’s not a bad episode at all.
© Steve Morrissey 2019