Rome: beyond grapes and gropes
Over the last few months I’ve been “consulting” for part of a series of BBC drama-documentaries on ancient Rome (“Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire” -- which starts on BBC1 later in the month). It’s been something of a dramatic conversion for me, since I had always been a dreadful snob about “drama-docs”. A conscript cast of B-list actors, dressed in sheets and forced to mouth the most plodding lines a script-writer could ever have invented” “Oh look Horace, there’s Virgil talking to Maecenas . . . let us go over to the temple to see what’s going on.”
My conversion was largely the work of the BBC history team, who had done their homework on Rome and seemed genuinely interested in finding new ways to present the ancient world on television (going beyond the grapes and the gropes). How could you find a style that had the impact of the BBC/HBO’s “Rome” but treated the historical issues seriously for a general prime-time audience? Could you bring different episodes of Roman history into the limelight – not just the usual staples of Julius Caesar and Nero?
They were also keen to involve me from the very beginning – not just wheel me in when they had already decided what line to take. And, yes, the actors were to be A-list (Sean Pertwee, Michael Sheen etc, as it turns out).
Of course I might still live to regret it.
I have no doubt that my hawk-eyed colleagues will point out gleefully all the “errors” that remain in the finished product. I haven’t had the nerve to look at the preview DVDs yet, but there are bound to be some lingering problems. That’s partly because you can never quite pick up everything that’s wrong. When you are on the hunt for one kind of mistake, you blithely overlook others. I must really have infuriated the BBC people when I got on my high horse about some heinous error in the third version of the script which they politely pointed out I had not objected to in versions one and two.
But I came to see that in this kind of business there are different levels of truth and accuracy. One of the most important things is to find a way in which you get viewers interested in some of the big historical issues, the things that professional historians get excited about. That might mean not worrying over much if the legionary standard or the priestess’s headdress is not quite right – as if we knew, in most of these cases, what was really right anyway. A completely “archaeologically and historically verified” programme would not just make pretty barren fare; it could actually be more misleading than a judicious use of the imagination.
That’s why I came to see that “drama-docs” could have a degree of honesty that the straight “documentary” sometimes missed. The usual array of “talking heads” look as if they guarantee the bona fide truthfulness of what you are watching. But in fact, by the time these poor academics have been cut and edited, they only end up appearing to back whatever line (mad or otherwise) the programme maker wants. Drama-docs may make all kind of compromises that cause historians to wince. But at least it’s clear that it IS an imaginative reconstruction; that there is inevitably a bit of fiction in the history.
So does "Ancient Rome" manage to get beyond the grapes and the gropes? Let me know when you’ve watched it (it’ll be on the History Channel in the US and elsewhere in due course). As for me, I’ll have to wait and see if I’m a permanent convert. But, for the time being, I’ll be happy if (thanks to episode 3) Tiberius Gracchus, the forgotten radical politician and martyr of the second century BCE, finds a little place in the popular imagination once again.