Poor Mary Beard trundling around . . . Rome on a bicycle?
I have to say that Brian Sewell is usually good value. I hardly ever agree with him, he makes me cross -- but it's usually an encounter I quite enjoy. That goes for his broadside today in an Observer interview about BBC factual programmes -- in which (to summarise crudely) he has a go at the ways serious content is dumbed down into entertaining travelogues, and presented for the most part by the ignorant.
There are some things on which Sewell and I would seem to agree. It's not exactly a travelogue, but I have never quite understood why, whenever we have a piece of news about the Prime Minister, it has to be delivered to us by some poor reporter who has been sent to stand outside Number 10 (even though the PM himself may be 2000 miles away). And while I may have affection for an old-fashioned "swingometer", the multicouloured all-singing and dancing graphics that we now get at almost every election look like the kind of things people do in my business when they've been on too many "make the most of your powerpoint" courses.
But Sewell's main focus is on documentaries and their tropes. You would have thought that he didn't have much of a leg to stand on after some of his own television work. So far as I recall his Channel 5 The Naked Pilgrim series, it did most of the things he is criticising in this interview. Click here for Nancy Banks Smith memorably recalling the sight of Sewell getting sea sick in the Bay of Biscay, and here for the Scotsman querying the sexing up of the title. Ok, you might say, given that it was about pilgrimage it was allowed to be a travelogue; but "Naked Pilgrim"? (Sewell himself seems to let commercial channels off the hook in the interview: "I'm not criticising the commercial channels. They all have obligations to shareholders and advertisers." ...so that's alright then?)
Almost everyone (except David Attenborough) who has recenty presented a BBC documentary gets a ticking off (or their producers and directors do). I come off fairly lightly: "Poor Mary Beard, trundling around the ruins of Rome on a bicycle. Why?"
Well, for a start, let me say that a bicycle is my normal mode of transport back home. And -- far from "poor" Mary Beard -- whizzing round Rome on a little red bike was huge fun and felt entirely "right". But that's not what Sewell meant. He was talking about the bicycle as tv trope.
I'm not going to pretend that this is my specialist subject, but as I've made a few tv programmes now, I have had a chance to reflect on it a bit... so here goes.
I remember vividly when I made Pompeii in 2010, I looked at the first rough treatment and saw that a boat trip on the Bay of Naples had been scripted in, I exploded: Melvyn Bragg, I said, doesn't take boats trips in In Our Time, what on earth was the point of it? If it's a programme about Pompeii, cant we just stick in Pompeii? A long discussion followed!
Radio, they insisted, was very different from television, in some respects. First of all, most people listen to the radio while they are actually doing something else; they come in and out of it. When they choose to watch a tv documentary, they mostly commit an hour of more or less full attention to it. If you keep them among the ruins of Pompeii for a solid hour, with no glimpse of anything else, they'll want to escape the claustrophobia. It's true that people visit the site for longer than that, but then they have some freedom of movement, they are not chained to where the camera insists they go.
I could see the point when they explained. And we did go out onto the Bay of Naples -- and the truth is that we got a view from there which really helped to explain all kinds of things about the ancient coastline and how it was populated. These days, I'm much more laid back about different sorts of location, so long as they give added value to the intellectual points being made (they're not just pretty in other words).
As for the bike there are similar justifications. One of the other issues about a television documentary, I've come to see, is the linking thread between locations. Here we are looking at one ruin, and now here we are at another -- but what's the relationship between them? Are we in another continent or the same town? For me, the bike evokes the sense of closeness and proximity that you get in ancient Rome. You dont actually need a street plan, or world map -- what you need to know is that we're in the same urban area, that it's easy enough to get from one location to the other. That's what the bike tells you. (We never used it outside Rome; sure it became a nicely appropriate trademark, but we didn't do spoof shots of biking down the autostrada.)
What really baffles me is the accusation of dumbing down, or of patronising. I suspect I'm not high up on Sewell's list of "most wanted criminals" here. Indeed, if I have him right, I suspect that he probably appreciated the fact that there was no CGI, no model exploding volcanoes, and no b-list actors pretending to be Romans. For me, "not dumbing down" was, and remains, an absolute article of faith. It was almost more important to me than anything else that every object we showed was the real thing (and I can tell you that it sometimes took days or weeks, even for me, to track down the original pieces we wanted to look at in Meet the Romans); and it was equally important that we made it absolutely clear how little (as well as how much) we sometimes knew and that we didn't compromise with the language... the inscriptions written in Latin appeared in Latin and were translated in front of the viewer. What other mainline TV channel in the world would commission that?
If people thought I was patronising (as some, I know, did), then I'm a bit sorry. All I can say is that -- like it or not -- I really don't talk any different in the Cambridge lecture room. And I really hope that those people didnt confuse the fact that we were talking about humble people with everyday concerns (stiff knees and no money to pay the rent) with an exercise in going down-market. Most viewers I know didn't.
As I said, Sewell's interventions are often engagingly provocative. And I cant speak specifically for the others he attacked or needled (and I grant that needling can be a useful occupation). But my hunch is that most of us would say that there isn't one single way to do television, that he is not right to say that there is a formula being imposed, and that the best thing about the BBC is that 1000 flowers really do bloom.. grey haired ones amongst them.