The Roman Mysteries -- on DVD
A few years ago I was the consultant to a series of BBC drama documentaries which were filmed in Tunisia. One of the perks I got (but not a free one, I hasten to add) was a visit to the set -- Empire Studios-- at which the programmes were made. This is a 'rebuilt' Roman town, near Hammamet, and was launched by Tunisian film mogul, and friend I am told of Berlusconi, Tarak Bem Ammar.
It is carefully advertised as having a non-unionised work force, not just the crew, but also the talent.Though it is hard not to sniff a whiff of eurocentrism in the following note:
"Tunisia offers mainly Arab/Berber looking talent. There is also an expat community offering European and African looks suitable mainly for background roles. All other talent needs to be brought in from abroad.
No model or acting agencies exist so street casting is used to scout local talent."
All the same (OK a bit awkward, I admit), it was a tremendous place -- including a brilliantly reconstructed forum, at which all buildings were a bit out of line to allow the cameras to get in.
By the time I actually got to Tunisia with the husband, they had well finished filming my stuff, and were towards the end of filming a series of Caroline Lawrence's Roman Mysteries -- Roman thrillers for kids.
I hadn't then actually read any of the Roman Mysteries (an omission now rectified), but I remembered Caroline from when we were students at Newnham together. And I was curious to see how she worked a hugely successful version of the Roman world for the under 15s. (The answer is extremely well -- and, as I reported in this blog a year or so ago, she won the Classical Association Prize for a significant contribution to the public understanding of classics in 2009. Richly deserved.
Anyway, I have just got my hands on the dvds of the complete series (the ones largely filmed at Hammamet) . . .
. . . and royally good they are too (I must point out that I am of course utterly biased in her favour... but I am a very hard act to please even when biased.)
I don't quite know what age the ideal target audience is, but late at night with half a bottle I really got into the spirit, aged 55. They are a tremendous introduction to the Roman world, as well as being great fun.
There is a marvellous and wry portrait of the Elder Pliny (who has just finished the last scroll of his Natural History), some nice complex negotiations on the nature of slavery -- and (my favourite) some arch joking by the junior heroine, Flavia Gemina, on Catullus' sparrow.
But best for me (given that I am just now involved in my own tv programme on Pompeii) is that the first episodes take place on the eve of the eruption of Vesuvius, with the tremors, the funny smells, the dead birds, and the disruption of the water supply that all presage disaster . . .
It comes 100% recommended by me.