Gladiators: Back from the Dead, Channel 4
Storyville: Sync or Swim, BBC4
Scientific analysis and dramatic recreations – with lashings of blood – place you right inside the gladiatorial arena
Sunday 20 June 2010
Zombies and vampires have been everywhere lately.
If they're not falling in love like emo wannabes (that'll be you, Twilight), they're bludgeoning our ears with bad Southern accents (thank you, True Blood). Even living legend Bill Murray tried to become an undead fixture with the best cameo of last year in Zombieland. OK, so they're not clogging up your local supermarket (but imagine the queues if they were, shuffling along, giving a baffled "Uuuugh" when asked if they've got a loyalty card), but it's enough of a trend to whip up some excited anticipation for Gladiators: Back From the Dead.
How disappointing, then, to discover that this was not to be Wolf: the Revenge – in which the receding-haired one might take out his anger at being beaten with the pugil sticks by severing the carotid artery of the contender – but rather a forensic investigation into the discovery of 80 skeletons on a building site in York, 75 of which belonged to males who had somewhat mysteriously all died in the prime of life 2,000 years ago.
I say mysteriously, but nothing is a mystery to forensic anthropologist Michael Wysocki. This is no run-of-the-mill archaeology show. For a start, Dr Wysocki doesn't have a beard, so he wouldn't even have made the shortlist for Time Team. Instead of digging around in a pit, the doc's in a white coat in his lab. And he's as sure about who killed corpse No 1 as Gil Grissom ever was. It was a tiger. How do we know? Because Dr W is in possession of a tiger's canine, he's poking it into the hole in the vic's shoulder, and it's a perfect fit. Miraculously, he has at his fingertips everything he needs to make his case. "It's highly unlikely he was attacked by a tiger on his way home from the pub," says Wysocki. Too right. You don't get many tigers roaming around York. Turns out the poor chap was most likely a "bestiarius", a criminal or slave, thrown into the ring to fight wild beasts and entertain the crowd.
The doctor introduces us to five more gladiators, deducing from their size and injuries (using such phrases as "sharp force trauma to the right ulna") how it was they died. The deep slash above the knee of another set of bones shows the man to have been an "equitus", a privileged young male who cantered around on a horse bashing people. Unlucky for him that one of them got to his femoral artery first.
But lucky for us – because it means we get to see another bloody slo-mo reconstruction. The ultimate thrill of the games, we learn, was to see someone die. And, boy, are we treated to a spectacle. It's not quite Spartacus: Blood and Sand, thank the lord, but does the topic really require such gory illustration?
According to an archaeologist I spoke to, it certainly doesn't. "The audience has become more educated about this kind of programme," she says, "so the producers could have pitched it higher." She also takes issue with some of Dr W's conclusions: couldn't that tiger have been a bear, or more likely, a boar? Even so, for this layman, Gladiators made archaeology approachable.
Another group of men under investigation was a bunch of rubber-capped Swedes. And a Welshman, Dylan, who has struggled to fit into society since moving to Stockholm. The best way to find his niche, he discovers in Storyville: Sync or Swim, is to join a club. And what could be more of a niche than a male synchronised swimming team?
Starting out as a ragtag gaggle for whom even floating seems a challenge, they are gradually moulded into a half-decent team, and when they discover they are not the only male outfit out there, they enter the world championships in Milan. Granted, they're not quite Esther Williams and her mermaids ("Everybody knows what to do, just not when"), but it looked such fun that it almost had me hankering for nose clips.
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