People have e-mailed to ask what I really thought of the television series, Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire. I posted about it before it was shown, but haven’t committed myself post eventum, as it were.
Part of the reason for that is that I have discovered how loyal you become to a programme you have had a hand in. It’s not that I can’t see the faults (for example, the line about the “infamy” of Nero was far too reminiscent of Carry on Cleo, as a number of reviewers pointed out). But I do somehow feel that, in modern management speak, I “own” it.
I realised this just before the series was broadcast, when a guy from the Radio Times rang to quiz me about its “perverse ordering”. Anyone who watched will remember that the first three episodes went chronologically backwards: first Nero, then Julius Caesar, and finally Tiberius Gracchus. I instantly leapt to the defence, with a smart argument about challenging standard forms of historical narration, and advantages of not always telling history from A to B (B to A sometimes works better). True enough, but the emotional force with which this all came out to slightly bemused man from the Radio Times was like that of a mother accusing a (largely) innocent toddler from an unjust accusation.
Anyway, on Tuesday I had another go at defending the show at a “Public History: seminar in Cambridge. This was part of an enterprising line-up of seminars designed to bring “public” and “media” historians face to face with academics. Often they feature big stars like David Starkey. On this occasion it was me and two of the programme makers of Rise and Fall, quizzed by an audience of dons and students.
The discussion was a good one, and happily it ranged much more widely than just our programme – with questions about how you “translate” the ancient world onto the screen. All the same, I felt some of the old knee-jerk defences coming out, particularly when someone asked a perfectly reasonable question about the Gracchus programme: why, given the importance of Tiberius’ brother Gaius, was he completely whited out of the picture?
Beard’s answer, I fear, was a bit of a rant. “How absolutely bloody typical”, I squealed. “Here we are, a posse of programme makers who have put Tiberius Gracchus onto mainstream BBC 1 for the first time ever, given him an audience of close on 5 million …. and, instead of rejoicing, all the academic can do is complain that we didn’t include his brother!” Yes, but . . .
In many ways the most interesting parts of the discussion came when the guys from the BBC talked about research on people’s watching habits and how this affects getting an audience for a history programme at 9 o’clock in the evening. My own normal “viewing strategy” is to consult the TV Guide and -- if there is something interesting -- to switch on. Apparently I am in a minority. Most people have the television on all evening anyway. Their choice simply revolves around which channel to choose.
For a history programme maker this means how do you get the audience not to turn over as soon as the opening sequence come up. It’s partly a question of what they call “inheritance”. If your documentary on the Romans “inherits” the Super Vets audience, then you stand to lose a lot more of them than if you “inherit” Panorama . . . unless you have something there in the first minute or so to stop millions of hands reaching for the remote.
And so it was that I began to understand why Michael Sheen as a marvellously mad Nero had to come first.