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.
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