“Don’t you feel a bit ambivalent about doing TV history?” people often ask. “I mean, isn’t it all terribly compromising/cheapening/over-simplifying….or whatever adjective you like?”

The simple answer is “No”.  Of course, for me there have been a few (to put it mildly) unpredictable consequences – which I’ll come on to.  But, overall, it seems to me that if professional historians don’t from time to time show their own wares on television and radio, we’re lost.

It’s not that I’d want to ban from our screens the likes of Joanna Lumley enthusing about the Parthenon. or for that matter some highly paid racing car fanatic taking us round  World War I battlefields.  But we also need to claim – or keep – a place for specialists themselves, devising, writing and presenting programmes on what they really know about.  All the evidence is that viewers appreciate being eyeball to eyeball with the expert. If people turn on a programme about Stalin’s policies in the 1930s, they like to know that they are hearing for the person who has worked on that half their lives, not someone reading lines from an autocue.

What this has meant for me (as for other friends and colleagues who have made programmes) is being involved in the process from the very beginning – from deciding what the overall theme might be, through defining what points we would want to get across, to picking the places and locations that could best help us make those points.

Of course that is a collaborative process – between (in my case) the BBC, the independent production company (Lion TV), and me – and there are often some practical compromises to be made (for example, my biggest wish-list of sites for Caligula would have spent our budget 5 times over). But no-one has ever tried to dissuade me from some of my most important “bottom lines” – no CGI, and no B-list actors dressed up in sheets pretending to be Romans (“pass the grapes, Marcus”).

Many of the problems of putting ancient history across on screen are much the same as putting it across to a lecture hall of undergraduates (it’s a myth that the Romans on TV are a completely different kettle of fish from the Romans in Cambridge).  One of the keys, for viewers or students, is not to make the whole story sound like a rather dreary litany of “things we don’t know”. You have to try to turn the focus onto all the stuff we do actually know and can still see (one of my favourite bits in Caligula was going to see the remains of the emperor’s pleasure barges on Lake Nemi) and also to try to communicate the “fun of the chase” even if the prey (i.e. “the facts”) does sometimes elude you.

There are differences too of course. When I first started doing documentaries – which was less than 5 years ago (I’m still a beginner, honestly) – I imagined that TV history could be more or less a visual version of In Our Time – which is, I guess, the closest thing that any bit of the mainstream media get to a university seminar (albeit with a rather controlling chairman).  In fact, the discussion and disagreement parts of a TV documentary are I think the hardest to manage. I really don’t like the “talking head mode” (in which you suddenly switch to boffin in book lined study, who opines on one of the main issues of the programme); and we haven’t done that.

All the same, it is very hard to get a “real” conversation going with a colleague which doesn’t exclude the viewer, but which at the same time doesn’t involve me, as presenter, playing dumb and asking questions that I know the answer to already…and then it just oozes staginess. I have learned one or two tricks. For example, if you want to get a conversation going about the implications of different estimates of the size of the population of Pompeii, don’t play ignorant and say “How many people lived in Pompeii, Andrew?”; instead say something like, “I imagine we have about 12,000 living in this town. Is that your estimate, Andrew?”  But these are still the most awkward parts of the programmes, I think.

And as for the downsides – and those “unpredictable consequences”? Well, I guess that when I agreed to do some TV, I knew that things weren’t necessarily going to be easy for a late middle-aged woman, who looked the 50 something years she was. But it would have seemed cowardly (and decidedly un-sisterly) to be frightened off for that reason.  To be honest, I didn’t quite expect the A A Gill “She ought to be on The Undateables” kind of reaction – or for that matter to be occasionally thrust into the spotlight as poster girl for old ladies in the media.

Even so, it has been worth it – especially when I meet young women, and school students, who have followed some of these little storms, and taken a very strong view about sexism in the media, and about preconceived notions about how women (whether on TV or not) should look. After all, as one colleague in Cambridge said to me a couple of weeks ago, “I just haven’t understood all this fuss. Maybe we do live in a university bubble, but to me you just look normal.”

Mary Beard is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge and classics editor of the TLS. Caligula with Mary Beard will be repeated on BBC2 at 1.50am on Tuesday 20 August and should be available on BBC iPlayer for a week after that (we hope!). Mary blogs regularly at A Don’s Life, you can find her on twitter @wmarybeard, and her latest book Confronting the Classics (Profile, 2013), is out now.

Tags : academic collaboration with mediaacademic in the mediahistory documentarieshistory on televisionMary Beardpopular historyTV history
Mary Beard

The author Mary Beard


  1. As a TV person I think academics are on the whole too wary of television. Mary’s right; all programmes are a collaboration. I’ve never heard of anyone [least of all me] imposing elements like drama-recon or cgi on unwilling academics. MB may have objections to such things, but they are not really the point. These are visual techniques producers can use [well or badly] to build what I can only call Belief in the viewer – that these people or this thing were [something] like what is being shown. Much more important is what she says about uncertainty/debate. Viewers need to believe a presenter, so showing them apparently ignorant makes no sense. Equally having people disagree usually draws attention more to the fact of disagreement than the details of the issue [cf Newsnight]. In that way a film cannot be like academic life; viewers can’t read things twice or consult footnotes. Films can take perhaps one or two disagreements, but they should be congruent with thoughts the viewer might have had herself, and most important they must be integral to the plot [emotional AND intellectual] which the film is constructing.

    1. As a viewer, I would prefer that the expert/presenter gave more space to the different interpretations of what is known about the subject on screen. Discussions and debate breathe life and modernity into antiquity and allow us space to consider and ‘talk amongst ourselves’ at home and this is part of the fun of watching in the first place.

      My ‘belief’ is more likely to be held by a presenter saying ‘there is this theory and there is that theory’ so I get a sense of the 360 degrees of perspective on the thing than plumping for ‘the most likely’ and presenting it as cast iron fact with only the scantiest evidence other than a stern look to camera.

      When the latter happens, all the lay person can do is react to a gnawing sense of irritation and frustration that some production company somewhere is worried that conflicting and complex ideas will make us turn off when it is oversimplification which actually has me hitting the remote with a cry of ‘do they think we’re all idiots?!’

      Mary has a way of being occasionaly contentious and challenging while also authorative and just a bit naughty – it makes for great viewing and we do indeed ‘talk amonst ourselves’ when the screen has gone dark.

  2. Apart from the fact that your programmes are very informative and amusing to boot,I do so appreciate not being distracted by intrusive camera and sound effects as is the case in some otherwise interesting programmes. Keep up the good work!

  3. I would just like to say, thank you, Mary. I thoroughly love your TV work. You bring it all to life with your enthusiasm and knowledge. Anyone who thinks you should be something you’re not are clearly not interested in the subject you’re presenting. Keep up the good work, I say!

  4. I totally agree with Prof Beard. History programmes on TV often leave you feeling puzzled as the narrative often does not explain things clearly/sufficiently. This might be because of bad cuts of clips and inadequate scripts. However, it is more often due to the fact that the presenters do not know the subject, resulting in the programmes relying a lot on camera effects and repetitive cut aways. Also, one of my pet hates is the presenter saying: ‘I am a historian’ or ‘As a historian…’. That is totally unnecessary. Watching Prof. Beard’s programmes makes me feel really happy as I end up learning new things. Her programmes have also inspired my daughters to do history and Latin in school.

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