TV review: Caligula with Mary Beard, BBC2

Coming Up: Sammy's War, Channel 4

Mary Beard with an ancient Roman caligae at the Xanten Museum
Mary Beard with an ancient Roman caligae at the Xanten Museum

In a post-Horrible Histories world, it can be a struggle to give a different popular-history format the time of day. You want to pay attention to the venerable academic on screen, but you keep wondering if it mightn't be improved by the addition of an Aztec-themed reworking of Kylie Minogue's "I Should Be So Lucky". Or a skit on medieval banqueting in the style of Come Dine with Me. Mary Beard, however, is the all-Latin-reading, all-A A Gill-conquering classiest classicist on TV and if anyone deserves a chance to worm her way into the capricious hearts of viewers, it's her.

Her latest is a one-off documentary about the first-century Roman Emperor Caligula (you may know him better as "Malcolm McDowell"). No one knew how to party like Caligula or, as Beard has it: "If we were making a porn movie in Roman times, we'd be bound to cast Caligula in the lead." I'm glad that's out in the open because, truth be told, we were mainly in this for the sex and violence, weren't we? And therein lies the presenter-professor's dilemma: How to correct viewers' OTT misconceptions, without taking all the fun out of it.

Beard resolved this by first detailing the sensational gossip at generous length. There's that oft-repeated allegation of an incestuous relationship with his sisters. And did you hear the one about Caligula's mentor Emperor Tiberius? Fond of the palace pool, he trained a troupe of small boys called his "little fishes" to swim around his thighs and nibble at his genitals whenever he went for a dip. Depraved, entertaining and entirely unsubstantiated by contemporary records.

The only Caligulan excess that was supported by the artefacts was his Liberace-shaming taste in interiors. Courtyard walls studded with fist-sized rubies and emeralds! Not one luxury floating villa, but two! And – a personal favourite – a cheeky marble sculpture of a sleeping hermaphrodite.

Alas, the time eventually came for us to turn away from the jewel-encrusted erotica and face the disappointing truth: "No ancient source ever says that Caligula made a horse his consul." Of course, Mary was bound by professional duty to deliver this bombshell sooner or later. We should see it as a mark of her essential good nature that she at least did so with an apologetic look on her face. As it turns out, most of the scandal surrounding our Malcolm was rooted not in his recorded behaviour but in a more generalised Roman anxiety about succession. By 37AD, the Roman Republic had fallen and in its place was a system of loosely inherited power that made the emperor vulnerable to any distant relative sneaky enough to attempt an assassination. No wonder Caligula preferred his horse to his family.

There was inter-familial strife of a less homicidal kind in Sammy's War, part of Channel 4's Coming Up series that showcases new writing and directing talent. Teenager Sammy stays at home with her grandmother (Celia Imrie) while her glamorous war correspondent mother is off covering foreign conflicts. She's willing to go to extreme lengths to get her mum back home for good, much to the concern of the underappreciated primary care-giver, Gran. It's a rather slight story, but writer Regina Moriarty and director Andrea Harkin tell it with impressive emotional intelligence and the triangular grandmother-mother-daughter dynamic, in particular, is played out nicely.

There's a lot to be said for an understated calling card like Sammy's War. One drawback, however, is that it provides irresistibly inviting conditions for any scene stealers in the vicinity. The culprit here is young Jessica Barden as Sammy's friend Ruby. She doesn't have many lines, but the ones she does have are delivered with a natural charisma that renders everything else about Sammy's War that little bit more forgettable. I'd watch out for her.

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