I used to think I liked all of history. Hastings, Nero, The Beatles… it was all part of the rich tapestry of human success, failure and mentalness as far as I was concerned. The more sex and violence the better. Unfortunately, BBC2’s latest documentary contained none of these things. Pompeii – Life and Death In A Roman Town was simply a rather uninteresting account of the daily grind in a settlement that was smothered to death and preserved perfectly (to much academic delight) by a volcano in 79AD.
“This isn’t a programme about the volcano itself” says a Mary Beard, “but a documentary about what life was like in Pompeii at the time of the volcano…” Groan. Remember when you were at school and your teacher whacked on a educational video? Remember the unbridled excitement when everyone realised that teach had caught the climax of some wildly entertaining film in their haste to record the Science Zone? Like a fusty teacher winding through the final scenes of Braveheart, our presenter was shepherding us away from excitement and back to unfathomably dull facts about the diet of John Q Centurion.
It’s alright for Beard. As a professor of History at Cambridge, I’m sure she’s made a living out of this kind of humdrum factual analysis. But even her rather liberal passion can not disguise the fact that this material is just rather drab and probably shouldn’t have made it to production. Mary Beard is likable enough in a Janet Street-Porter kind of way, and she does an impressive amount of swearing, but I found it difficult to care about the discovery of a Roman middle class (“They weren’t really rich or really poor! Amazing!”) or the fact that syphillis actually entered Europe a couple of years earlier than we first thought. For me, history is fundamentally about telling stories and the most exciting or mysterious tales are nearly always the best. Unfortunately, this was about as interesting as school programming..