Cry Havoc! Ask Questions Later is a new podcast available to listen to now, wherever you find podcasts. Our intrepid reporter, David K Barnes, spoke to creator, David K Barnes, to find out a bit more about the show and why you should listen to it.
Hi David! What’s Cry Havoc! Ask Questions Later about?
It’s an epic about power, politics, money, and murder – with lots of juicy drama and jokes!
Yes, but what happens in it?
What do you know about ancient Rome?
That’s OK. I wrote the series to be totally accessible, so you don’t need to know anything going in. After all, we don’t all have an Ancient History degree do we? Ha ha!
Was that a brag?
But honestly, even if you’ve only dimly heard of Ancient Rome, you can jump into this series. And if you do know about Rome, there’s lots of geeky references and jokes you’ll enjoy too.
So, Cry Havoc is set in the Roman Empire is it?
Not quite. We’re at the end of the Roman Republic, when Rome was still run by a group of wealthy guys called the Senate. They were making decisions and taking votes. Sort of like a democracy, except the people in charge can totally ignore the poor.
… I mean … gestures at the world
I know, some things never change, sadly. But then along comes a statesman and military general called Julius Caesar-
I’ve heard of him!
He was basically already in charge, but he decided he wanted to rule forever. And some senators weren’t keen on that, so they killed him. But then there’s a war and the killers get killed, and that leaves lots of big problems to deal with and nobody to deal with them.
And that’s where Cry Havoc starts: a great big crisis, with two guys – Mark Antony and Gaius Octavius – trying to run the country together. Really, really badly. And this is the road by which the Republic will fall apart and become the Empire.
Like Star Wars.
Right. Enough of the history. Describe this show to me without referring to history at all.
Imagine it’s a high school movie, and the greatest jock – loves sports, hates studying – has to team up with the greatest nerd – vice-versa – to run the school together. And neither really know what they’re doing. And they can’t stand each other. It’s like that.
I was really drawn to the idea of two people placed into a situation of responsibility, who each have crucial skills that the other lacks – and then seeing how that situation can really spiral out of control. Do they help each other? Betray each other? What happens to the world around them? It’s a story where one hangover can have enormous consequences.
It’s not just about those two guys though?
No! There’s also Gaius’s sister, Octavia. She’s meant to be a respectable Roman lady, but she drinks too much, sleeps with other women, and – most scandalous of all – she likes theatre.
In fact, she runs a theatre company, the Palatine Players, who stage comedies making fun of her brother. Then Octavia wants to write one herself, something topical, something really dangerous and up to date. And her desire to do that will lead to all kinds of trouble…
So Rome’s in crisis, the two leaders can’t work together, the sister’s doing topical comedy…
Also, the army hasn’t been paid and the soldiers are getting… impatient. They’re sharpening their swords, if you know what I mean. There are conspiracies afoot, and plague, and food shortages. Not to mention rumours of mysterious cultists. Oh, and pirates.
Ancient Roman pirates, yep.
Things can’t possibly get worse for Rome can they?
Of course they can! Because guess who turns up? Queen Cleopatra of Egypt.
I’ve definitely heard of her!
Egypt is Rome’s most important ally. What do you do when your friends are in desperate need of help? You squeeze them for everything you can get – and that’s exactly what Cleopatra’s here to do! She’s already achieved so much in a world that’s out to tear her down, and she never takes no for an answer.
Is Cleopatra a main character too, then?
Yep. Mark, Gaius, Octavia, Cleopatra – and completing our quintet, there’s Charmian. She escaped a life on the streets to become Cleopatra’s handmaiden and confidant, but she’s never forgotten where she came from. She’s good at being unnoticed, which makes her an excellent spy. But there’s also a part of her that yearns for something more…
Well, I won’t give any spoilers – but Charmian will meet Octavia in peculiar circumstances, and it turns out that they’ve got pretty good chemistry together…
It sounds like you’ve been wanting to write this series for a long time.
I’ve had something like it in mind for years and years, though it always felt too ambitious to try it. After all, it’s a fully scripted and produced historical comedy podcast series with a huge cast. But after the success of my indie sitcom podcast Wooden Overcoats (2015-2022), which ran for four seasons, I felt much more confident in tackling the subject. And then Rusty Quill gave me the opportunity to try it out.
What was the inspiration for the form Cry Havoc finally took?
It’s been in the works since 2020 and the pandemic, when I was getting really wound up by the UK government’s failure to take COVID seriously – and then I realised I could channel all that into a series about the fall of the Roman Republic. But this couldn’t simply be an angry rant about politics, it needed to be a comedy with characters we could enjoy (whether we’re rooting for them or not), with romance and excitement and escalating stakes.
Did you work with anybody else on writing it?
Yes, we have a team of eight other writers from around the UK and the USA, all of whom brought their own perspectives, experiences, and interests to bear upon Cry Havoc. I worked with that model on Wooden Overcoats and you just get so many more ideas that way. I really enjoy it; it’s stimulating and keeps you on your toes. I give massive thanks also to our historical consultants for their invaluable expertise, particularly Dr Emma Southon whose irreverent approach to her subject is so inspiring! And then there’s our director, Amani Zardoe, without whom we simply wouldn’t have a series.
A fruitful collaboration?
Absolutely. She’s thrown herself into every step of the production from start to finish to make this series as good as it can be, and that includes the writing process. Even before the writers were assembled, I’d spent many hours with Amani discussing characters and story, really interrogating what we were doing. We talked over every draft of every script, and even when I thought I’d nailed an episode she’d suggest an extra beat or tell me where dialogue needed extra polishing to make it really sing, and I can’t remember when she was ever wrong. It’s the kind of creative partnership that makes you glad to be working: always kind, always enthusiastic, and always doing whatever they can to help you achieve your best.
Is there any area you’re especially proud of?
Getting twenty episodes of a brand new show together is more than I’ve ever done before, and I reckon they were all worth making, so I’m enormously proud of that.
Finally, why Rome? Why do you care?
I love the subject. I wrote my university dissertation about the series I, Claudius and how we view history through a contemporary lens. Ooo, and I also wrote a script where Detective Columbo winds up in Ancient Rome and investigates the murder of Emperor Domitian.
None of these words mean anything!
Fair, but the point is I’ve been really interested in Ancient Rome for ages – and especially the way it’s been represented in TV and film. Rome lends itself to these big, melodramatic epics, full of great thespians declaring things in togas and stabbing each other, while scheming mothers plot the downfall of dynasties to get their children closer to power. I love all that. But the Romans took themselves very seriously indeed, so it’s been really fun to turn around and put them in a comedy.
Has that ever been done before?
Yes, but don’t mention it.
Cry Havoc! Ask Questions Later is available to listen to now, wherever you find podcasts. Find out more about the show on the Cry Havoc show page. For 48-hour early access to ad-free episodes, check out our Patreon.