The Weekend's Viewing: Two history shows, but with very different intellectual price points

Rome's Lost Empire, Sun, BBC1 // Westminster Abbey, Fri, BBC2

Often, television will offer you the same product at two different intellectual price points.

This week, for example, you could take your Roman history in a Tesco Finest sort of way, with Simon Sebag Montefiore's three-part series for BBC4. Or you could go for the Domino's stuffed-crust- pizza version delivered by Dan Snow on BBC1 last night – Rome's Lost Empire. The former is one for those who like to think of themselves as having a connoisseur's palate for such things. The latter appears to have been made for those assumed not really to have a taste for it at all, so has been pumped up with television's favourite flavour enhancers – ersatz jeopardy and CGI magic.

That's a tiny bit harsh. I actually quite enjoyed Rome's Lost Empire and it had a lot of intriguing material in it. But if you'd trimmed the factitious narrative spicing from it, you'd have been left with a tight one-hour programme instead of the slightly sprawling one hour and 20 minutes it actually occupied. I suppose they wanted a bit of imperial scope to match the historical pomp of the subject matter, but what's baffling is how transparently bolted-on the enhancements are, and how unlikely it is that they would seduce a reluctant viewer. I'm not talking about CGI here, incidentally – few of us are immune to seeing a great work of Roman engineering magicked back into place on its original site. I'm talking about the uneasy feeling that Bonekickers is the model for their account of intellectual exploration.

Essentially, the programme involved the application of a relatively new field of archaeology – satellite surveying – to some important Roman sites. Snow travelled to locations in the ancient empire with Sarah Parcak, a satellite archaeologist, to see whether her findings could add anything to existing knowledge. Short answer? Yes. A lot. Several pick-and-trowel archaeologists appeared to be genuinely excited by what she'd spotted after hours staring at her laptop. But why on earth did this have to be represented as a personal psycho-drama for a professional who is presumably already well aware that her methods work? "I guess there is that jeopardy of finding out whether I really am an expert at doing this," said Sarah, before setting out, as if she'd been specially briefed to get the all-important J-word on to the soundtrack.

At other times, you find yourself wondering whether what you're being told is true at all. Did they really need to walk overnight to reach the site of a Roman fortification in what had been Dacia? Seems odd given that when they got there it appeared to lay right next to a forest road. Or was it just that they wanted an excuse to drop in some utterly pointless spookery about Transylvania, and up the Indiana Jones factor? And were those Romanian archaeologists really as surprised by this discovery as they implied? Or were they just doing their bit to contribute to the desired plotline, in which Parcak's researches rewrote history as you watched? Perhaps one shouldn't grumble though. There was also a real sense here of the excitement of archaeology and the remarkable sophistication of the Roman world. Maybe someone watching will get a taste for this stuff and graduate to Sebag Montefiore.

Two versions of a singing contest this week too, as it happened. You could have the carbonated, high-sugar version in The X Factor Final or, in Westminster Abbey on Friday night, an altogether more high-minded sing-off between Andrew and Ben, two young choirboys competing to get the high-C solo in Allegri's Miserere (no phone voting, obviously). If church fabric is your thing, this series is definitely for you, though after the recent fiasco over women bishops, I couldn't help feeling that there's a far more interesting behind the scenes documentary to be made about the Church of England, which we're far less likely to see.

twitter.com/tds153

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
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.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve