Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Recent TV

Sunday night ITV3 had a programme called Boudicca. With the usual dramatized reconstructions, it purported to be a historical account of Boudicca's life, but pretty soon it was making things up. Of course, you almost have to do that to get an hour's programme out of Boudicca's life, as the sources are so patchy. But this sort of programme is very bad at making clear what is backed by evidence, and what is speculation. And once something is stated with authority, it gets treated as a 'historical fact', regardless of evidential foundation. So, for instance, this programme had a detailed list of the tribes that joined the rebellion, whereas there is only evidence for two. All the others have been added by 'later tradition', which could be no more than someone's guesswork in the eighteenth century. But it's not worth going on about this. I've set out my opinions on Boudicca, and most modern treatments of her, here, here and here (and you can find a bit more if you scroll far enough down the comments here).

Rather better were Monday and Tuesday's repeats on UKTV History of the Greek Gods and Goddesses series, presented by Olympic athlete Jonathan Edwards. I wrote a little bit about the first one, on Jason and the Argonauts, when discussing Michael Wood's programme on the same subject. There were a few mistakes in this programme - not all Hollywood versions of the story keep Heracles to the end, the famous 1963 version getting rid of him mid-story, as per the legend, and the encounter with the Sirens belongs to the return from Colchis (which was misspelt on a map), not to the journey out. And it is interesting to see Medea presented as exemplary of good helpful womanhood, editing out her betrayal of her brother and her subsequent crimes. But I found interesting the presentation of the Jason legend as a 'rites of passage' tale, and a series of lessons about what Greek men needed to know. I still think one needs to be aware of the possibility that the original legend has grown in the telling - both Heracles and the Sirens I think are later additions. But that doesn't necessarily invalidate the reading Edwards presents of the story as it stands.

The second programme, on the Odyssey, had the potential to be more clearly focussed, centring on the tale as told by Homer, rather than a general aggregation of various tellings. Unfortunately, it cherry-picks the story to such a degree as to give a somewhat distorted version. Gone are the Lotus Eaters, Aeolus, the Laestrygonians, Circe, and the cattle of Helios. More importantly, gone is the theme of the wrath of Poseidon, and Odysseus' tendency to lie is underplayed. And the sanitization seen in the previous programme's view of Medea takes over at the end, and the slaying of the Suitors is completely excised.

This morning I also caught Alexander Siddig on BBC Breakfast (there's an article with a link to the interview here), talking about his role in Hannibal, to be broadcast this Sunday on BBC1, with a documentary on BBC2 either later the same night (if you believe the BBC History page), or the following night (if you believe the BBC Two listings). Siddig was talking about what a great general Hannibal was, almost as good as Alexander. Well, tactically, yes, and as a leader of men. But strategically Alexander succeeded and Hannibal failed (though his high-risk gamble was admittedly about the only thing that was likely to bring Carthage success against Rome). We shall see what the programmes are like. (Tom Holland apparently wrote about the programme in the Daily Mail, but I can't find it online and wouldn't link to it if I could.)*

Winner, predictably, was BBC4's programme Lost In Egypt on the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, misleadingly sold in the listings as giving an insight into ancient Egypt, though actually they reveal daily life in Roman Egypt, and lost literature of ancient Greece. Lots of people I know or know of as talking heads, all done with BBC4's usual intelligence. This one will repay rewatching when I'm not distracted by making the dinner and feeding the cats.

* Please note, this is due to an objection to the Daily Mail, not to Tom Holland.

1 comment:

Brett said...

Hannibal was shown in Australia about a month ago. I was only half-watching it, and it's been a while since I've read my Livy, but my impression was that it was relatively historically accurate. For one thing they didn't (as far as I could tell) invent subplots to pad the story out, as in the show on Boudicca you describe. Instead, it was a very quick romp through a lot of history, lots of characters came and went, and they took pains to explain the strategic situation (and criticisms of Hannibal's strategy were made -- for example, not attempting to take Rome after Trasimene). And while I'm sure the details were probably wrong, it was nice to see the Roman legionaries with republican-style oval shields instead of the 1st century rectangular ones, which is what you usually see regardless of period. And I'm partial to anything that has war elephants in it ... On the other hand, although Fabius Maximus was one of the main characters, I never once heard anyone call him a cunctator :)