I am extremely honoured to be giving this Jocelyn Hay Lecture. I didn’t know her personally but it is very clear that everyone who works in any way in Public Service Broadcasting, in fact anyone who listens to the radio or watches the television, has got quite a lot to be grateful to Jocelyn Hay for. I hope that she at least would like what I am going to say today.
Photo copyright: Michael Bowles
So far as I can recall, I’ve watched television as far back as the second episode ever of Dr Who (which was in 1963, and for some reason I missed the very first episode). But I was absolutely terrified by episode 2.
A relative newcomer to TV
So I have a long career of telly watching, but I’m a relative newcomer to actually appearing on television. Apart from occasional, and I have to say pretty amateurish gigs, as a talking head, I’ve really been on TV for less than ten years - about 8 years.
There are many people in this room who know an awful lot more about television than I do and so it’s with some trepidation that I’m speaking because my day job is as a university teacher at Cambridge, and, to be quite honest, if push comes to shove, that is what is most important to me. When television has long tired of Beard I will be in the university library trying to get some work done.
Though it should go without saying I am also hugely grateful to the BBC and to Lion TV – both of whom have given me the opportunity – the really lucky opportunity - to reach a bigger and wider audience than I ever thought possible when I became a teacher.
What I’m going to talk about tonight really comes from the interface between those two areas – the area of university and television.
I was persuaded in 2010 to put my toe into this media water by Janice Hadlow, who was then the Controller of BBC 2, and who (I think) was looking for in inverted commas more ‘real’ women, and more ‘real’ historians to present and devise history programmes. Also slightly older ones – she was wanting grey haired old ladies like me. I was at first pretty reluctant. Most of all I was worried that making television programmes was terribly and needlessly time consuming (I was absolutely right on that).
I also remember vividly saying that people like AA Gill would not like my style as a presenter (and I was prophetically right there too)… But Hadlow snookered me.
She said quite rightly, ‘you have been quoted complaining at the sexism of documentaries (as full of wrinkly old men, but no wrinkly old women) . . . now I am offering you the opportunity of presenting a programme yourself, and you are saying you are going to turn me down. Isn’t that a tad inconsistent?
With that, she had got me. I agreed . . . though on one now notorious condition, that there were going to be no drama reconstructions in any programme made by me. No B list or A list actors, C list actors dressed up in sheets, saying, ‘Do pass the grapes Marcus’ and the like.
I need, in the interest of full disclosure today, to say that I am not blaming the actors for this, it’s the script writing, the wobbly sets…. That’s an agreement that remains honoured and I’ll be coming back again to it with a slightly more intellectual tinge.
So I’m offering you this evening some personal reflections about history on television (based, I confess, around a few clips from my own stuff).
I really do want to underline that this is not an attack on any sort of history on telly; what it is attempting to do is to raise some bigger questions of what makes a good history programme, and what we’re putting history on television for.
But let me make two important preliminary points. First, I don’t think we’re aiming at only one answer here.
It would be extremely dull if there were a single formula for history television. Certainly it would be extremely dull if every history programme - even the Roman history - were presented by people like me and we all did it the same way.
In many ways it is the sheer diversity of the historical offerings in the UK that is one of its strengths even if I don’t like them all – from me or Bettany Hughes to Joanna Lumley, the Hairy Bikers or let’s praise him, Danny Dyer, there is a such a range of stuff we should be pleased with but the range is terribly important.
Second, although in what follows I shall tend to talk in the first person, one thing I have learned in making programmes is that television is all about teamwork, and on the team you teach each other.
I am not just referring here to particular technical and visual expertise, though that is part of it. I have learned that (and this is what I used to think) that if you just did an hour’s programme in the ruins of Pompeii and never left it, that all would all be super.
I now do see that see that that would be visually very boring. I have also come to see that if all you do in an hour’s programme is wander round foot high ruins, or go from one museum gallery to the next, viewers will switch off.
I had needlessly and foolishly austere views about not getting on rivers or boats or going up in drones. I now see that that’s very important. I’ve learnt hugely about how to make people visually interested.
More than that, I’ve also learned a huge amount from everyone I have worked with: director, producer and crew, about how to argue and even what to argue, I mean what words. And everyone has saved me from the most colossal errors.
I remember one time in a storeroom in Pompeii waxing very lyrical about some bronze pipes – I was going to town - they were amazing; when I’d finished Tim, my friend on sound, very nicely said, ‘Sorry Mary, I think these pipes are actually lead.’ Which indeed they were. So I apologise in advance for the rather too many “I”s and “me” in what is to come. Every time you hear an ‘I’ it means ‘we’ and ‘us’.
OK. Let me kick off with a clip from the documentary that Janice first commissioned, it’s called Life and Death in Pompeii – and it’s about exactly that. This clip is actually the very first bit of filming I ever did in 2010. I was a completely raw recruit, and the clip takes us from an ancient cellar full of skeletons to have a look at the jewellery some of them were found wearing.
[Video excerpt from BBC Two programme Life and Death in Pompeii. Sequence about jewellery from Pompeii. Mary Beard tries on a gold bracelet worn 2000 years ago.]
One point about that is that it happened just as you see it. And it is to the credit of the director Paul Elston for his bravery here for letting me do what I wanted to do.
You see me, exactly as I was, sat down at a table, reacting spontaneously to pieces of ancient Roman jewellery that I had never seen before. What it’s showing you, and I think this is important, is the more or less unmediated reaction of the historian to her material… what do you feel about it, how do you start to make it talk to you, what do you notice, what questions do you ask it?
And in a way, although this is a rather grand way of putting it, it is a little example of real-time historical method being done – while at the same time raising some bigger issues about historical reconstruction.
I said just now that one of the things I insisted on before signing up was that there should be none of those scenes where actors pretend - unconvincingly and usually with a really awful script - to be Romans at a banquet or recreate the scene of the death of Socrates or whatever.
I’m not talking about the excellent Lucy Worsley here; Lucy trying clothes on is actually something rather different I think from this historical recon.
My insistence was, as I said, partly because this kind of drama recon is always excruciating to watch. But there are bigger historical and methodological issue at stake in my antipathy to it and issues that go right to the heart of the processes by which history television open up the past to us, or obscure it.
Now it is often said that re-con of this kind helps the viewer who may know nothing of the period to picture the historical scene. It helps them ‘get’ what a Roman banquet was like.
Maybe I admit up to a point it does - it can show you that rich Romans sometimes had posh dinners lying down. But it does that at a great historical cost. Because it simply offers the viewer a version of the past that is ready made, recreated for them.
Good or bad, excruciating or not, it gives little or no clue about what for me, and I accept that other people may not share this, the most fundamental question of history: namely how we reconstruct the past, what are the reconstructions we make for ourselves in our minds based on, how difficult or hard is it to re-envisage what went on 100s or 1000s of years ago.
Just to stick to the Romans for a minute, that kind of ready-made ‘here’s one I made earlier’ kind of methods of historical recon almost conceals from people the simple fact that they have left behind for us an awful lot behind (admittedly fragmentary) material on which any good reconstruction is based, and it doesn’t share any of the historian’s historical skills and, this for me is really important, that would enable to audience to do it for themselves.
I sometimes think of this – and it’s a very bad analogy - as a very mini version of Mary Berry and whatever Bake Off is now called on the BBC. When we watch, we know we aren’t likely to bake cakes as good as she does, but we are encouraged, and supermarket takings prove this to be true, we are encouraged to go out and buy some flour and have a go. Mary Berry’s programmes deliver in changing our activity - “Yeah, I’m going to have a go at making cakes.”
In some ways what I am saying about history is similar. I want to empower them to do it for themselves, to do their own reconstructions, when they go to museums and look at the objects from the past, or visit archaeological sites.
And what that clip shows is that some of that reconstruction is not rocket science, and a lot of reconstruction of the past does come down to such simple questions of value (if this is gold, it was almost certainly the possession of someone rich), or even size…(that suggests that this bracelet belonged to a man, and this one to a woman and so on).
In a way, it’s not so much teaching people some highly technical historical skills, it’s encouraging them to have confidence in their own questions. Their own questions are not stupid. Their own questions can get them a very long way.
Sure, there are some things that I or others know because we’ve been doing it for a very long time, but you don’t have to have a huge amount of knowledge to join in the historical profit and historical fun in joining in that game of reconstructing for yourself - asking your own questions.
And it’s more of those questions of how we engage with the past, of thinking what we can learn from what’s left, how we do our own reconstructions, that comes out in the next clip, from a later series, Meet the Romans, which looked at the lives of the ordinary men and women of Rome.
We got out of the case one particular object in the Archaeological Museum at Naples, one that most visitors just walk past, but which turns out to be highly revealing.
[Video excerpt from BBC 2 Meet the Romans about ancient Roman gynaecological speculum.]
That’s the kind of reconstruction I like. I think that it sort of speaks for itself, and it shows again just how far simple questions about an ordinary or extraordinary object can take us.
But here it also becomes a visual peg to hang some further points about gender division in the ancient world on and to introduce some of the most extraordinary, and even among professional classicists, little known material about ancient obstetrics drawn from rather arcane ancient medical writers.
Many of my academic colleagues would have been as unfamiliar and slightly shocked by some of that nasty detail - as most viewers would have been.
That is another way of saying that television documentaries don’t need always to go for the obvious and don’t need to trade in a slightly patronising way stuff that all specialists know but that you the public don’t. They can exploit what at first sight might seem actually rather difficult or academic or abstruse stuff and they can even foreground original, un-translated Latin.
A further true story - when we started planning Meet the Romans – which was to be an attempt to persuade people watching that there was a lot more to explore in Roman life than the fairly standard topics or emperors, bloody generals, over-eating, gladiators and high level and slightly kinky sex – we were very keen not just to illustrate their lives through their material culture and the archaeological remains, we also wanted to hear what they had to say about their lives.
And there was only one place to go for that. Most ordinary Romans did not write the ‘Great literature’ which has come down to us as great works of literature. But many of them did leave very vivid descriptions of themselves and their families in Latin on their tombstones.
I’m sure you can imagine that when we told the BBC execs that we intended to bring the little people of Rome to life via the Latin in the original language on their tombstones, the reception was not rapturous, but reluctantly they let us go ahead. When we came back with the first cult of the films, they said they would have liked MORE TOMBSTONES.
Here’s a clip, where we introduce the genre, and try to get the viewers to warm up to what they might learn here even if they know not a word of latin.
[Video excerpt from BBC Two Meet the Romans where Mary Beard reads from a person’s tombstone, translating the latin, highlighting that everyday concerns about how to pay the rent, how to pay for the next meal were concerns of life for so many ordinary Romans.]
What’s great about that is that it really lets you tune into the voice of this guy, or at least his family, from way down the social scale in Rome (not at the absolute bottom, I should say; if they had been at the absolute bottom, they wouldn’t have been able to afford a tombstone … but we’re getting well below the toffs, generals and the posh - the people who usually populate the histories of ancient Rome.)
But we’re also dealing here with specialist expertise if you want to exploit what is actually very vivid material. It’s both very approachable. I’m not just talking about a knowledge of Latin (the language is quite easy to get across actually because you can point people to words that they half recognise).
The fact is that the whole study of Roman inscriptions like this is a real niche subject even in academic classics and history; most university students doing classics would never do it in the course of a degree. You couldn’t expect even a good TV researcher to find stuff like what I’ve just shown you. You certainly can’t walk into any old museum (that one was Verona) and come across a text like that – you have to know how to find it.
That use of Roman tombstones was one of the best combinations I’ve had with the television. Because it is partly one of my specialist subjects - I do know how to find the story of the little girl who died in the fire or the guy who couldn’t pay his rent. Combining that with telly and being able to show it to people - it does then come alive: they’re very clear objects and it’s clear what they’re doing. For me that is the most important combination of really high level expertise and it being very interesting, ordinary and approachable.
We were really extremely excited at being able to pull that off because we went around 100s of museums getting things like that out but it did prove worth it for everybody. It was the one place where you can see the Roman poor had a voice - actually gives them a voice.
The Big Idea vs everyday life
Even more important though, for me, is the basic principle that good history on television needs a good argument. Television history often I think relies on a rather limited range of what an argument is.
There is a tendency to privilege THE BIG IDEA, what’s the big idea? Or what’s THE BIG DISCOVERY or THE NOVELTY over and above the equally important but the less flashy new way of looking at the past, or the reframing old things in a new template.
In my area there aren’t all that many BIG DISCOVERIES. There are some, especially in archaeology, and there’s been a big one today, the newly discovered Greek ship, but those new discoveries tend to get overexploited in television.
One example, in the world of bio-archaeology (the study of skeletons, or traces of pollen, etc) and it’s an area that an enormous amount of new understanding about the ancient world has been generated. But when it gets to your screen it does tend to be about that the skeleton suggests gladiators ate porridge for lunch and that’s never seemed to me to be particularly important.
You can build huge drumroll of excitement over something that is trivial. I’m more interested in sharing with viewers the historical arguments and explanations and disagreement that I discuss with my students.
Now in fact people often say to me it must be very different presenting history on television from presenting it to Cambridge undergraduates. No, it isn’t. Sometimes undergraduates know a bit more, but in their first year they know very little about the ancient world and they just as much demand you make them see it’s worth finding out.
Maybe on television you may keep away from some of the technical terminology I’ve tried to make whole programmes about the Romans without mentioning the word ‘Senate’ (quite an achievement). But the arguments are the same. When my students watch these programmes they recognise what I think.
Try this on Hadrian’s Wall.
[Video excerpt from BBC series about the Roman Empire, Ultimate Rome: Empire without Limit about Hadrian’s Wall as a symbol of power as well as the boundary of the empire.]
In just over two minutes we’re getting across several fundamental ideas that my undergraduates chew over all the time. We don’t really know what Hadrian’s Wall was for (it’s probably more a statement of Roman power than anything else), but it does mark a new stage in Roman imperialism… that in the second century AD the empire for the first time seemed to be getting a mapped rather than a blurry edge. And you can actually do that even more vividly on television than in the lecture room.
What you just saw on Hadrian’s Wall was pretty straight – a pretty conventional bit of historical explanation. You couldn’t go through a whole programme like that because people would feel it was like a lecture. But it’s important always to remember whether you’re talking to students or to TV viewers that you can have fun and playfulness into it. Whether it’s for undergraduates or viewers - viewers can switch off and students can not come back next week so both of them need to be enticed.
I can’t resist showing you a short extract from Meet the Romans from the lavatories at Roman Ostia, which is perhaps not the most argumentative piece of television, but raises significant questions – as well as being a rather funny favourite.
[Video excerpt from Meet the Romans about Roman public toilet.]
I guarantee you can always get people to concentrate on Roman social history if you go to a lavatory. I am reliably informed that every school teacher knows what a great clip this is to keep the class occupied.
But they are concentrating on real points. You’ll see some of the same old techniques that I’ve pointed to before. Let’s have a look at how does this work?
It was part of a section where we were highlighting the fact that the Romans were simultaneously just like us (every culture goes to the loo) and very different. How do get your head around a culture in which people go to the loo together? Is it different, and how, from a modern mens’ urinal now or is it different?) and so on. I had nothing to do with the cloning of me (that was the idea of the director Hugo MacGregor), but it worked well as a way of parading in a light hearted way the point of communality of the lavatory experience without getting dressed up.
making history relevant
But we had to think about this a bit hard last year when we made an hour’s one-off documentary on Caesar for BBC 1. Now the BBC 1 audience is not less intelligent than the BBC2 audience - but there isn’t on BBC 1 a solid body of BBC viewers who don’t need to be won over, who will turn on a programme about the Romans by Mary Beard because that’s what they do. In some ways it’s a more of a difficult and interesting challenge to present a bit of mainstream Roman history to a group of people you have to get from the beginning.
We really wanted to get across the point that Julius Caesar, like it or not, was still part of our world – from the name of the month of July (named after Julius Caesar) to phrases like ‘Et tu Brute’ (which even if it was invented by Shakespeare but it was still sort of about Julius Caesar) but we always wanted to say that Caesar’s political methods are not unfamiliar from the populist methods of some modern politicians.
One problem here is the blokeish point. If you take Caesar, and say you’re going to have an hour’s documentary about Caesar whatever you say you’re going to do people with think it’s about battles, so we started (and I am sparing you the footage here) with a real life film of a Caesarian section in which I took the baby, it was terrifying (the procedure was named, wrongly in fact, after Julius Caesar).
But we also wanted to show how the techniques of Caesar’s political campaigns were in part familiar to us. If anyone invented the art of the soundbite, it was Caesar, and we need to think about why (in fact very like Trump) he was trying to get to the people directly… bypassing the traditional institutions of state.
This is how we presented it.
[Video excerpt from BBC One’s Julius Caesar Revealed. Mary Beard graffiti on a wall of Veni, Vidi, Vici - I came, I saw, I conquered.]
What I did – it was filmed - I actually tweeted Veni, Vidi, Vici at the moment when it appeared on the screen to Potus and it was much enjoyed by the Twitter sphere, but it shed light, playfully, on how Roman political communication and how our political communication work.
I want to close with just two points, one serious one, and a final one more light hearted.
The first is how does this show abroad? Some of these Roman programmes have been very successful elsewhere. People come up to me in the street in Italy and say how pleased they are to be shown things about their ancient history that they didn’t know. I was terrified when I went to Italy after it was shown. They said it is great to have a “real” academic doing this. They like, they say, to see a presenter getting their hands dirty.
Interestingly, so far as I know, none of my Roman series have been shown on anything remotely mainstream in the United States. And there is an important contrast here which obviously raises the question of Civilisations.
Now I don’t want to go back through some of the well-trodden arguments about that series, except to say that the responses to the programmes on social media were by and large (not wholly, but by and large) much more intelligent, pro and con, than what you found in the broadsheets.
Social media by and large - even if they didn’t like it - saw the point. Broadsheets tended to go on comparing us unfavourably to what Kenneth Clark did, and what most people have never watched, 50 years ago. I am very happy to talk about this in the discussion, but I want to focus on a more particular point.
Now my aim in the Civilisations programmes that I was involved in (there were 2) was not just to admire great works of art, though there was plenty of admiration there. I wanted to look hard at some big underlying art historical questions. Why does art change? How do we learn to look at and interpret it? Why do people destroy it? What is the relationship between art and faith? Does Islam really ban images (well it depends what you mean by images)? And those were the issues that were repeatedly returned to even if not with agreement on social media.
But this programme was a joint production between the BBC and a US broadcaster, and the whole idea (to which I have no objection to this) was that the US broadcaster would make its own version around the BBC material but with edits. This ended up causing a very minor furore (I don’t want to exaggerate its importance).
For a start, they removed the presenters, all the presenters of the programmes as presenters. We were there in other bits but gone as the link-in lead. To be fair US documentaries tend not to have an active presenter, but much more often a leading actor co-ordinating the programme through his, usually his, voiceover. What caused that minor furore was that the editing seemed to remove my presence more than the excellent male presenters of the other programmes.
When I saw this I tweeted, slightly ironically - never try irony on Twitter - that the US version had removed the old lady with creaky knees. This got treated as an episode in the gender wars (and in sort of way it was; my guess is that those guys in America never really noticed they were removing me differentially more than the men).
But in a way that was not the main point. What they were really doing was removing the argument, and as almost all my pieces to camera were driven by the argument, they just went. It wasn’t that they were taking the girl out they were taking the argument out and the girl was collateral damage.
In fact bizarrely to me, the episode on religious art, which ended in the UK version with a difficult question about whether the idea of “civilisation” was really itself an “act of faith”, ended in the US version with a presentation of Bill Viola and his installation in St Pauls Cathedral.
They were different styles and different types. It felt to me it would be much harder to make argument-driven programmes in the US than it is here. First, thank god for the BBC and British television more generally, that we can do that and you can be an old academic on telly.
Secondly, you need a sense of humour round here. And it’s in that spirit that I show you a clip from W1A where I appear as an extra at a fake BBC party, and Tracy puts her foot in it.
[Video excerpt from BBC comedy drama series W1A in which Mary Beard appears at a party.]
I think Tracey there is right. We can’t all be Lucy Worsely or Mary Beard, or Simon Schama or David Osulsoga or Danny Dyer for that matter.
But altogether - with that real smorgasbord and the real differences and variety - I think that, although we get cross about some things, I think history on British telly is not doing bad really.
- Jocelyn Hay Lecture 2018: Professor Mary Beard DBE
- Professor Mary Beard gives the annual Jocelyn Hay Lecture - pictures