Last Night's TV - Imagine, BBC1; Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town, BBC2

Faith, hope and chariots

It's like wading through sick," said Lee Lyford disconsolately, halfway through
Imagine's film about the making of a theatrical adaptation of the sword-and-sandals epic Ben-Hur. Lyford was the director, one of just a handful of professionals involved in the production, and what was making him feel queasy was the unreliability of some members of his cast, a third of whom had failed to turn up for a rehearsal. At which point, Radio 4 regulars will have heard a very familiar voice commenting on the proceedings. "Is there any point?" it asked plaintively. "The entire project seems to be disintegrating anyway."

The voice was that of Marjorie Antrobus from The Archers, or rather of Margot Boyd, who played her, and was so determined to share her love of theatre with the people of Bath that she left a large chunk of money in her will to fund a drama project, the one proviso being that all those on stage should be amateurs. The director, Fran Landsman, or some diligent researcher, had trawled through The Archers archives so that Boyd could comment on the proceedings from beyond the grave – a nice touch which, apart from that one little dip in morale, mostly delivered encouragement and praise.

As did Lyford himself, of course, working on a project that offered some advantages (there was no shortage of parts), but also some signal challenges. How exactly were they going to stage a sea battle in a trireme, or the film's famous chariot race? Lyford candidly confessed that he didn't have a clue, but seemed confident that they would get there somehow. The solution to one of these conundrums helpfully mopped up some of the overspill of theatrical ambition, which became clear at the early auditions. Those who missed out on the speaking parts got the chance to play a small section of the Mediterranean – a rehearsal process that provided one of the funnier sections of Landsman's film – as Lyford encouraged his cast to really immerse themselves in the full sloshy liquidity of their role. "Really remember this quality," he told them, as they swayed gently like strands of kelp in an ebb tide, "because you have to be able to click into this."

There was, unsurprisingly, quite a bit of stage fright. One novice, Poppy, decided to pose nude for a life class first as a way of desensitising herself to public exposure, which struck you as being a bit like amputating your hand because you've got a splinter stuck in your finger, but seemed to work anyway. Another actor, Caroline, treated the whole enterprise as a kind of life-therapy. "I'd totally lost the sense of myself," she said about the effect of full-time motherhood, but she appeared to have found it again by pretending to be someone else entirely. And, of course, in the end the performance was a triumph, with the chariot race being mimed on the cramped stage of the Theatre Royal to the accompaniment of a Grand National style commentary on the publicaddress system. "I'd say he's cracked it," said Alan Yentob, with reference to Lyford's biggest challenge. I'd say Yentob was being quite kind, frankly, but there was something about the enterprise – the eagerness, the pleasure and the sense of enlargement it gave – that made it virtually impossible to be anything else. Margot Boyd got her money's worth.

The Roman members of the cast traipsed round the Roman baths at one point, as part of their research, picking up on their availability to citizens high and low but missing the fact that there was no plughole. Mary Beard pointed this out in Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town, also spelling out the corollary, which was that Roman bath water got filthier and filthier the more people used it. A doctor at the time warned anyone with an open sore that it was best to give the baths a miss unless you wanted to develop gangrene. Beard claimed she was on a mission to "bust a few myths" here, and she drew on the relatively recent discovery of 34 bodies in a Pompeian cellar to fill out what we already know from the ruins of the Roman city. But the myths, when you got to them, didn't strike you as being very convincing. How many people really believe that Roman society consisted of lark's-tongue-guzzling aristos and malnourished slaves, with nothing in between – one of the "received opinions", which Beard overturned?

Fortunately, she's quite engaging anyway – the sort of classicist who says "willy" rather than "phallus", and isn't too stuffy to confess to a sense of thrill when she tries on a gold Roman bracelet. In any case, it's virtually impossible to make a dull film about Pompeii, in part because of the energies of the city's Tweeters, who – lacking smart phones – had to inscribe their updates on the nearest bit of masonry. "I was here and had a good shag", one unknown Pompeian had scratched into the wall of the town's brothel, though I suppose that could be taken as a posted user's comment, rather than a Tweet. And in one of the town's jakes someone called Apollinaris, doctor to the Emperor Titus, had whiled away a bit of time engraving his name and the phrase "hic cacavit bene" or "had a good shit here". The eruption of Vesuvius, not very long afterwards, has preserved for nearly 2,000 years the evidence that the desire to share your bowel movements with the world is not an eccentricity unique to our own times.

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?