A rather good article in German newspaper Die Welt about the Battle of Teutoburg Forest ahead of a documentary which was shown yesterday afternoon - perfect Christmas fare... or something like that. For those who speak German and who missed it you can watch it again here for the next couple of days. I should also probably mention that I am in it.
Apologies that posts have been thin on the ground recently, but those who follow me on Twitter will have seen a number of posts recently from Herculaneum, the city destroyed by Vesuvius in AD79. I was fortunate enough to be there to film an episode of Mummies Alive with the brilliant Mick Grogan of Saloon Media for History/Smithsonian/Yesterday and ZDF. The episode is focused on the remains of the soldier/sailor found just in front of the boat sheds on what was the shoreline by the ancient city. Photos by co-presenter, the geologist Dougal Jerram.
I tend to forget how long it takes between filming and when a show actually appears. I had a great deal of fun last August shooting the Roman segment of a documentary with Pioneer Productions called Secrets of Underground London for PBS. At the time I posted about filming in London's amphitheatre here.
For those in the UK the show is on the channel Yesterday tonight at 2100. Here is the blurb:
The program begins with an archaeological find beneath Guildhall, an original Roman amphitheater built around 50 AD for gladiator events. The site could accommodate 5 - 6,000 people, which was the majority of Londoners at the time. Next is a site hidden beneath The Museum of London, where 20,000 skeletons were found - graves from the Black Death Plague which began in 1348. Next are 22 miles of tunnels cut beneath Chislehurst, where miners extracted chalk needed to build brick and mortar buildings which replaced wooden ones destroyed in the 1666 Fire of London.
The documentary had originally been scheduled for January, but I understand that it is now likely to go out in the autumn. What those nice people at PBS have done, however, is put up the documentary for anyone to watch online. The Roman section runs for the first five minutes. You can see it here. I hope that you enjoy it.
For more on the amphitheatre, Maev Kennedy has a really unpleasant piece in the Guardian today about headhunters who gathered the heads of executed enemies or fallen gladiators and exposed them in open pits.
I was pleased this morning to see that the news about Halle Berry's production of a mini-series about Hannibal for History had broken. Here is the AFP head:
With the help of Hollywood actress Halle Berry as a producer, the American network dedicated to exploring the past will develop a miniseries on the African general who challenged the Roman Empire.
Full story here. It was a project that I worked on for much of the summer as historical advisor to Red Arrow and to the writer Jeffrey Caine, better known for his work on GoldenEye.
The experience of working on a big budget production is a curious one and the job of advisor is, as much as anything, one of gatekeeper. This is only the second film I have worked on in this capacity, and the last one never made it out of pre-production. On one hand it was a much more sophisticated job than I had expected. A bit of me did expect to have to explain patiently to Hollywood types that no, the Romans didn't use iPhones. But in numerous conversations and emails with Jeffrey I was blown away by how much he had read and absorbed.
Curiously the sticking point was the lack of knowledge about women in Carthage. I was met with disbelief time and time again in the US and in London that we simply don't know the name of Hannibal's mother or that of his sisters. The idea that the names of women were not important enough to record was something no one could get their heads around.
Even though I never got to meet Halle face-to-face, I can't wait to see the series.
If you are bored, my documentary Lost Legions, part of the Weather that Changed the World series is on Yesterday tonight - at 2100. Although the crew, and indeed the production company, are British the funding came from the US and was shown on the Weather Channel a couple of months ago. I posted about the show earlier in the summer here and here.
For those in the UK, tonight's episode of "Perfect Storms" is based on the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. It is on the channel Yesterday at 2100. You can see my thoughts on filming here and blurb about the show here.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have been plugging the show. I was involved with the filming - a splendid week in Germany - and it is a subject that I am passionate about.
But I really do recommend the show.
It is a truism, sadly not often acknowledged, that much television on classical subjects is tired and lazy. Aside from occasional spots of light, like Mary Beard or Michael Scott, it tends to revert to the familiar stomping grounds of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra and Alexander the Great. The filming too is often prosaic: the trope of three legionaries marching through a puddle has become so common as to engender a drinking game, the action is cut every 10 seconds in an attempt to keep your attention, and the language is often B-movie trailer. ("In a land without freedom, in a time before hope").
Commissioning editors have also largely forgotten that there is a difference between accessibility and dumbing down. Television is entertainment (to be fair something classicists, for their part often forget), but that does not mean that the audience is made up of simpletons with ADHD. I recall a dreadful doc on Channel 4 several years ago about Helen of Troy. The parts that weren't forgettable décolletage were simply banal. An obvious point had been forgotten that if you are going to make a film about Helen of Troy, the people who are going to stay in and watch it have at least some idea of who she is.
Another - far too - regular sinner is the documentary with the Daily Mail-style question in the title ("Did the Celts in Scotland wear kilts?"). The answer is always "No - stop wasting my time".
But Perfect Storms manages to do something different. It is almost old-fashined in that the viewer comes away knowing more than he/she did at the beginning. The story is told in an engaging way, CGI is worn lightly and the interviewees all have something to say. Hopefully viewers will want to find out more afterwards.
But what really lifts the show is that when thinking about Roman policy in Germany and imperial strategical imperatives, it is easy to forget that ancient battles involve real people. The past is seen, in a well-worn phrase, as another country. The interview with Capt Alexander Mackenzie in this show will change that. It certainly did for me! I hope you enjoy it.
"Lost Legions of Rome", part of a series called Weather that Changed the World, that I was fortunate enough to work on earlier this year for a US channel, will now show in the UK in October. From the press release:
UKTV, the multi-award winning media company that reaches over 42
million viewers a month, today announced the acquisition of Weather That
Changed The World from Passion Distribution.
The 9x30’ series made by Pioneer Productions has been acquired for
Yesterday and uses extreme weather footage, reconstructions and
testimony from experts to reveal how the history of the world has been
defined by the elements and how weather continues to impact our lives
Severe drought, torrential rain, extreme cold and unpredictable winds
are among nature's most powerful forces. Weather That Changed The World
delves into the past and investigates the impact of these extreme
weather conditions on monumental events such as the Hindenburg crash,
the sinking of the Titanic and the Challenger disaster.
There are various reports about the acquisition in the press: TV Wise and ATV Today. I blogged about the show in some detail when it was on the US. See previous posts here, here, here and here.
I was fortunate enough last week to spend Thursday/Friday in London filming for a new PBS show called "Secrets of Underground London" - it will be out next year. One of the great joys of a shoot is the access you have to sites that, under normal circumstances, you might not visit. Even better, you get to do so with no one else around.
One of the challenges with many of the recent archaeological sites in London is that exclusive deals have been signed with specific channels (yes, I am looking at you Mithraeum) but we spent a very happy morning at the Roman amphitheatre in London, about 30ft below the Guildhall Art Gallery.
The museum is a masterclass in how to make a limited site (only the eastern end of the amphitheatre has been uncovered) accessible and understandable. The curators have managed to give a real sense of the size and scale of the site.
On either side of the entrance into the arena, two antechambers have been uncovered, one is pictured below. There is still debate how these rooms were used, but I suspect that they did not have a single exclusive use: guardrooms from which soldiers could "encourage" combatants into the ring, waiting rooms for those about to go into the ring and as holding rooms for animals. I particularly liked the posthole in the bottom picture. It shows that there was access from the antechamber into the arena itself.