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

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there