Doctor Who: The Romans (BBC Audio)

Written by: Donald Cotton

Read by: Dan Starkey, Tim Treloar, Jamie Glover, Jon Culshaw, Clare Corbett, Maureen O’Brien, Louise Jameson.

Donald Cotton was in no sense your average Doctor Who script writer. He was, if anything, a sitcom writer just trying to burst out. As such, it’s rather joyous that he was responsible for three of the daftest purely historical scripts in early Doctor Who history.

The Romans was the first of them. Hitting in the middle of Season 2, after the angst of the science-fiction war film that was The Dalek Invasion of Earth and the space-based Shakespeare riff of The Rescue, The Romans promised a look at Rome in the time of Nero Caesar, a privileged psychopath whose reign in what we call reality was not in any sense a good time to be a Roman.

Comedy Who!

What Donald Cotton did with it on-screen was to turn it into a drawing room farce with consequences. Nero (played by Jon Culshaw) was a sex-crazed talentless nincompoop who hated competition and would bump off other lyre-players so as to be proclaimed the best. His wife, Poppaea (Clare Corbett), was the Roman equivalent of an IT Girl – posh, self-absorbed, not above bumping off her husband. Throw in overworked poisoners, a much-put-upon assassin, and an extremely assassinated lyre-player and what you have is a farce that almost wills the Doctor and his friends to step in and show various elements of life in Nero’s court.

The Doctor – read here by Dan Starkey with a combination of whimsy and gruffness that hits two of William Hartnell’s chief modes, but occasionally strays into Starkey’s trademark Sontaran mode on the gruffer notes – steps into the role of the dead lyre-player, so as to get close to Nero, and take him to task about the appalling conditions he’s noted during his time in Rome. As such, he becomes the target for increasingly desperate assassination attempts of a legionary second class, played in a joyously broad Welsh accent by Tim Treloar.

Ian Chesterton, played by the world’s recent audio go-to Ian, Jamie Glover, gets captured, put on a slave galley, escapes, gets recaptured, and is thrown into the gladiatorial arena before meeting back up with the Doctor. Barbara Wright, on the other hand, gets captured, bought at a slave market, and placed in Nero’s house, where she is forced to fend off the increasingly lecherous attentions of the extremely handsy Nero. In the only time she’s given a voice in the story, she’s played by later companion actress Louise Jameson, giving the emperor a distinct and fruity 1960s-style dressing down to discourage his raving lusts. And Vicki finds herself apprenticed to the court poisoner, Locusta (in a twist of fate, played by Maureen O’Brien – who played Vicki in the on-screen version).

A Cast Of Thousands!

If this cast of thousands seems unusual for an audiobook, as opposed to an audio play, you’re dead right. That’s another hallmark of Donald Cotton’s writing. When he came to novelize his own stories, The Romans, The Myth Makers, and The Gunfighters, he took enormous liberties with the standardized Target novel format, and delivered three of the most vivacious titles in the range.

The Romans itself is written in epistolary format rather than as a standard narrative. That means you get pages from the First Doctor’s diary, pages written by Ian Chesterton to explain his ongoing absence from school to his headmaster, scribblings from Nero’s scrapbook, increasingly vexed letters from a legionary to his disinterested mother, pages from Poppaea’s recording of her personal history, and a letter from Barbara the slave to the emperor himself.

That means you get a wide variety of tones, but that they each take the action forward. And that variety of tones means you get a variety of voices, legitimately, in The Romans, that gives you enormous value for your audiobook money here – especially when the voices behind the characters are so very well-toned to audio work. It’s churlish to pick a most valuable player out of this group, but you probably will find yourself looking forward to the return of Tim Treloar, whose legionary and assassin gets ever more put-upon across the course of the story.

Breaking The Mould

The result of Donald Cotton’s determination to be different is a joyful farce where any genuine danger to our Tardis team, like Barbara’s potential rape as a slave, or Ian’s potential death in the arena, are very much muted out beneath the runaround fun and the festival of puns that we badly want to spoil for you, but won’t. Suffice it to say that when it was broadcast in 1965, it was Doctor Who the like of which had never been seen before – a purely historical story played as farce.

When Donald Cotton came to novelize his story in the late 1980s, he blew the doors off the Target format and rendered the comedy historical of The Romans in a way that made it short, succinct, funny, and extremely accessible through the epistolary form.

And now in 2023, The Romans has been given the audiobook treatment it deserves, with top-notch voice actors delivering all the verve and slapstick of the book with pinpoint accuracy, timing, and where necessary, impersonation.

Best. Version. Ever.

The Romans is short, to be sure – you get from start to finish in under 2.5 hours – but every minute of the journey is worthwhile and hysterically funny. The original broadcast version of The Romans is an object lesson in comedy Romans that feels like it informed everything from Up Pompeii! to Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, to Plebs. And it did that within the format of a black and white era family time travel show. The audiobook of the Donald Cotton novelization is a succinct version of the TV story, that uses the epistolary style to cut out some of the fat and deliver a higher, leaner ratio of laughs per page. And the cast that brings it to life is flawless, giving you just possibly the best, most considered, most polished version of The Romans you’re ever likely to encounter.

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