In recent years, there’s been a fashion for “historical drama documentaries” on TV. You know the sort of thing – get a historian to front a programme on say, the Wars of the Roses, and fill most of the airtime with badly-paid and badly-acting extras re-enacting the battles. What could have been an opportunity for a knowledgeable expert to analyse a historical event gets pushed aside in favour of amateur dramatics and, shudder, “spectacle”.
Tonight, for example, on BBC One, there will be a programme on Pompeii, fronted by Dr. Margaret Mountford. Now, Dr. Mountford recently completed her studies with her thesis on Papyrology, so she may well have the chops to be able to talk knowledgeably about the lives of Pompeiians in 79 AD, but I fear the worst. The programme is called Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time, and is billed as “a one-off landmark drama documentary”. The programme web site contains plenty of stills of costumed extras pretending to be citizens of Pompeii.
Oh dear, this does not look promising. Particularly when I recall a documentary on the same subject that the BBC first broadcast in 2010: Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town. No pointless dramatical reconstructions there – just an acknowledged expert on Roman life, Professor Mary Beard, talking about her beloved subject. And because of her knowledge and enthusiasm, she was able to bring the citizens of Pompeii to life for me far better than hordes of the toga-clad extras that I suspect will be paraded before us this evening.
Just last year, the BBC broadcast a series of programmes made by Professor Beard on the Romans, and once again she brought them all to life without any need for “dramatical reconstructions”. Give me that sort of approach to history, and I’m happy. I think I’ll be giving Dr. Mountford’s drama documentary a miss this evening. I see that on BBC Two at the same time we have Sir Terry Pratchett contemplating the role of mankind in the eradication of the planet’s species, and considering his own inevitable extinction, hastened as it is likely to be by his Alzheimer’s disease. That sounds much more interesting and thought-provoking to me.