BBC looks to the past in its autumn line-up

By Ian Burrell,Media,Culture Correspondent
Wednesday 25 September 2013 02:24

The BBC unveiled an autumn schedule yesterday dominated by history programmes, including drama documentaries set in ancient Rome.

Two programmes will cover the destruction of Pompeii and the lives of the gladiators while others will explore the reigns of Queen Victoria and Charles II.

But the corporation has come up with no big ideas for cracking the enduring problem of attracting viewers on Saturday nights.

A question mark was placed over the future of Top of the Pops. Andi Peters, the former children's television presenter, has been hired to revamp the corporation's long-running chart show and make it relevant at a time when singles sales have collapsed. Lorraine Heggessey, the channel's controller, did not rule out the possibility of Top of the Pops being shunted to the digital channel BBC 3. She said: "When I was a kid it was really big news 'what's got to number one on a Sunday'. Now it's not big news."

Ms Heggessey denied she had presented a worthy and educational schedule because of concerns over the renewal of the BBC's charter. "This is not a schedule for charter renewal," she said. "We are trying to build a channel that would have enduring success. We are not trying to pump short-term profit out of it."

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius AD79 has been recreated in minute detail using computer graphics, and featuring a cast of actors, in a 90-minute drama documentary called Pompeii - The Last Day. Ailsa Orr, the producer, said the programme would counter the long-standing myth that the people of Pompeii were killed by molten lava rather than the 4 million tons of rock and ash that rained down on the city.

Colosseum, an hour-long drama documentary, similarly aims to correct misrepresentations made in the Hollywood blockbuster Gladiator which starred Russell Crowe.

Jonathan Stamp, the drama's executive producer, said gladiators were not the underclass portrayed in the movie, but were the professional footballers of their day, commanding transfer fees and enjoying a good standard of living. He said: "The other misconception we are trying to correct is that all bouts ended in a fatality. That's not the case. Gladiators were too rich a commodity for their owners to allow that to happen."

Mr Stamp, also produced Looking for Victoria, a portrayal of the former Queen of England by the actress Prunella Scales. "Victoria was anything but prudish," he said. "She had a big appetite for everything and she loved living the high life."

Other programmes on the schedule include the relaunch of the sports entertainment show Superstars, once famous for the sight of the former England football player and manager Kevin Keegan falling off his bike.

A new series, The Crouches, will be BBC1's first sitcom centred on a black family.

An underwater version of the highly successful Walking with Dinosaurs series will use sophisticated computer images to create prehistoric sea monsters.

There will also be shows on the veteran rock star Rod Stewart and a tribute to Rolf Harris for 50 years in showbusiness.

The BBC said a full-time host for the quiz show Have I Got News For You had yet to be found after the departure of Angus Deayton. A spokesman said that the show would continue with guest presenters.

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