TV review

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The Independent Culture
"If the Greeks had never existed who would have been the most annoyed? Freud." So Ogden Nash, on the sometimes indirect dependencies we have on ancient cultures. To which one is tempted to add: "Who would be most rattled by the absence of Homer? John Romer." Currently exploring the Seven Wonders of the World (C4, Sun), the historian is unusually adept at digging up the hidden aquifers that feed our contemporary imagination, tracing them back to their origins in the fabled sites of the ancient world. His is an archaeology of ideas as much as brickwork.

The effect is, paradoxically, both thrilling and sobering. Romer somehow manages to get the most famous sites to himself, even when they are sanctified shrines of the tourist pilgrimage. As he wanders alone through Ephesus, once a great religious centre, now a major stimulus for the sale of over- priced soft-drinks, you can indulge in one of those comforting but useless ruminations on the transitory nature of power. The truth is that the mighty of our own times are too busy consolidating their mightiness to look on in despair at the eroded evidence of former greatness. A bad opinion poll, maybe, but not weathered masonry. In any case, the remnants of antiquity have never actually been a great provoker of humility in latter-day Alexanders - the giganticism of Nazi architecture was prompted in part by Hitler's desire to leave whopping ruins for posterity. Still, we meeker types can satisfactorily spend Sunday evening musing on the transience of all civilisation. What's the point in touching up the woodwork - it'll all be dust in 2000 years.

The thrilling part lies in Romer's ability to irrigate the dustiest, least promising material. This weekend, for example, he revealed that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were probably just a media exaggeration, the work of over-enthusiastic Greek hacks who had talked to some camel- drivers and dolled-up the resulting conversations for their readers. This should have been rather deflating, those fanciful watercolours from the children's encyclopaedias evaporating under the glare of scholarship, but Romer managed to pull it round, arguing that the idea of those gardens was the result of an imaginary marriage between arid Greek terraces and the ordinary fecundity of riverbank agriculture. The word Paradise, he pointed out, is just the Persian word for a garden. And, even if the Hanging Gardens never really existed in the first place, they became true - reconstructed by Renaissance gardeners who thought they were building second-best but probably far exceeded the original in splendour.

Romer's account of the discovery of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was similarly gripping, the story of John Turtle Wood's obsessive hunt for a wonder he could call his own. Wood had followed the rut marks out of the Magnesian gate, a point at which Romer paused in the polleny heat to remind you that this was the same gate through which St John came to convert the Ephesians, entering a city dark with the smoke of heathen sacrifice. A cross had been carved into the stone, a triumphant piece of graffiti which now itself looked rather forlorn.

Two thousand years from now, our residues will probably be electronic rather than monolithic. What will they make, I wonder, of Pets Win Prizes (BBC1, Sat), once it has been deciphered at the British Museum's Department of Televisual Reconstruction? Chief celebrant of these bizarre rites: Dale Winton, trying to redeem the unredeemable with a form of camp as inoffensively bland as an air-freshener. "Ooh, you may well ooh me," Dale cooed, as the audience put their vocal cords through a Mexican wave, "They're barmy!" Look on, anybody over the age of five, and despair.