Meet the Romans with Mary Beard, BBC2, Tuesday The 70s, BBC2, Monday The Plot to Bring Down Britain's Planes, Channel 4, Thursday

Mary Beard's ancient Rome was a dangerous city where people got by on their pluck and wits

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The Independent Culture

I think A A Gill might fancy himself as a patrician. Google his image: the hairline, the vulpine grin ... stick him in a purple-edged toga and sandals and he'd make rather a good conspiratorial senator.

Which may well be why in his Sunday Times column last week he took issue with Meet the Romans with Mary Beard: where were the greats of the Eternal City? Where, Professor Beard, was Adrian?

As we well know now, he chose to express his misgivings quite unequivocally: Beard was peddling an unforgivably 21st-century vision of Rome as an "antique Shoreditch". Worse, she's too much of a minger to be on the telly. This insult was only useful insofar as it threw into relief the BBC's contradictory attitude to its female presenters: it's fine for Beard, a 57-year-old self-confessed make-up refusenik with a dodgy Gandalf cut to present a big series such as this but not, say, the more conventionally turned out Miriam O'Reilly to present Countryfile.

As for Gill's other criticism, I didn't see the first episode, but last week's seemed predicated on a portrait of Rome that I thought might have appealed to him: a teeming, dangerous city in which its inhabitants survived by their pluck and wits, or not at all: "It was a chaotic place," said Beard of Rome's warren of backstreets, "a right mess, a shanty town."

How did Beard know this, dodging backpackers outside the Colosseum? By some straightforward (classical) deduction: with no police or fire brigade, the majority of Rome's million citizens must have fended for themselves on the streets. There they fed, washed and relieved themselves – anything to avoid going home to their single rooms in crumbling, dark multi-storey slum dwellings.

And these 2,000-year-old bars, bogs and bathhouses were conjured into sleazy life by Beard, with the scantest of resources. Faded frescos and scrawls on anonymous walls were translated into lairy chunks of bar-room graffiti. Even better, Beard produced a facsimile of a tavern wall illustration defaced "by Victorian moralists": the act depicted was all the more impressive for the full glass of red wine in the participants' hands.

Dominic Sandbrook had no need for on-the-fly Latin translation. But two episodes into his series, the historian was no less keen to make familiar a strange and benighted land: Britain in The 70s. So far, his thesis is an engaging one, at least for me who ought to know more about the decade of my birth. Under the fish-eyed gaze of Ted Heath, modern Britain began to emerge: we bought homes, holidayed abroad and purchased ghastly clothes in greater numbers than ever before. And yet, so keen were the producers to have Sandbrook justify their stock footage to the strains of Led Zep et al that he was only able to squeeze in the odd killer fact: that property prices rose 10-fold over the decade, for instance, or that Harold Wilson countenanced handing Northern Ireland to the UN.

From secondary sources to primary in The Plot to Bring Down Britain's Planes, a documentary about the successful attempts by British and American intelligence services in 2006 to foil an Islamist plot to bring down airliners over the Atlantic. It had an array of talking heads from the respective intelligence services, and dramatic recreations which, sad to say, hardly evoked Spooks. But some stereotypes did apply. The British were understated and dull, the Americans avuncular and terrifying. It came as no surprise to learn from one suit that he (smirk) might or might not (smirk) have been the man who jeopardised the largest surveillance operation since the Second World War in pursuit of his own goals, rather than our own joint interests. Now we know where David Brent ended up: the CIA.