A trip to Pompeii: Let’s have Helen the director

We're still in thrall to a 2,000-year-old town

Share

You can keep your David Bowie exhibition.

This week sees the opening of “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” at the British Museum and I am practically squeaking with excitement.

It’s the first major exhibition of artefacts from these towns to be staged in London in my lifetime, which is astonishing when you think how obsessed we are with these small Italian towns, frozen in time for almost two millennia.

The cultural impact of Pompeii is enormous: everyone from Frankie Howerd to Robert Harris has had a go at it. The eruption of Vesuvius was compelling even as it was happening. As toxic smoke filled the sky around the Bay of Naples, Pliny the Elder sailed towards Herculaneum to try and rescue some friends. He didn’t survive the journey. His nephew, Pliny the Younger (who stayed at home reading Livy, which just goes to prove that bookworms die of old age), described his uninjured body to a friend as looking “more like a man asleep than dead”.

Our fascination with both towns is unsated. It’s surely because they show us history on such a human scale. Pompeii isn’t filled with official statuary and statement buildings but homes and workplaces of ordinary people whose lives remind us of our own. The shabbiness only adds to the pathos.

Pompeii had fallen on hard times. Buildings damaged in the earthquakes which preceded the eruption had often gone unrepaired. It was a town whose glory days were behind it decades before it made history. And the Pompeiians themselves had become a rowdy bunch.

In 59 AD, 20 years before Vesuvius obliterated them, the Pompeiians rioted after a day at the games. So many people from a rival town were killed that Pompeii was banned from holding gladiatorial games for a decade.

The portrait of a baker, Terentius Nero, and his wife is one of the star pieces of the new exhibition. They’re holding writing materials, so you – the viewer – understand that they are literate people, trying to impress you with their highbrow hobbies. It’s like catching a glimpse of a graduation photo; it’s a much more personal memento than, say, an official statue of an emperor.

The casts of a family hiding from the wrath of Vesuvius beneath a staircase can’t help but make us think of our own loved ones: it’s a disaster movie as much as it is a moment in history, and we respond to it accordingly. Rome may be the Eternal City, but it’s Pompeii that we can’t let go.

Mirren on Mendes

At the Empire film awards on Sunday Helen Mirren was accused of calling Sam Mendes sexist because she mentioned that the director cited an all-male list of inspirations from Truffaut to Bergman. Actually, she seemed to be issuing a plea that in five or 10 years’ time, there would be a more balanced gender mix in the film-making world, which is hardly the same as burning your bra and hurling yourself beneath the hooves of a passing horse.

Mirren is simply stating a fact: female film directors are in short supply. Is it too much to hope that she might soon get behind the camera herself?

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Geography Teacher

£130 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Secondary Geography Teacher Lo...

Do you want to work in Education?

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energeti...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: SEN TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed...

Private Client Senior Manager - Sheffield

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: The Sheffield office of this...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Arts Editor: The Great Character Actors of Football

David Lister
 

What I saw on the night my husband was hit by a car

Rebecca Armstrong
Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

The man who could have been champion of the world

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
Didn’t she do well?

Didn’t she do well?

Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
Before they were famous

Before they were famous

Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players