Mary Beard: history on TV has undergone a “revolution”

Documentaries are no longer a 'big guy talking big history' says the TV historian

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The way history is presented on television has undergone a “revolution”, says Mary Beard. 

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The historian – who has fronted documentary series for the BBC on Pompeii and Caligula – drew particular reference to the presentation of history on BBC2 a decade earlier. “This is not meant as a criticism of any of the guys I’m about to name, but it was full of Simon Schama and David Starkey and Niall Ferguson.” she told an audience at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

“It’s going to sound very gendered but there was a rather unitary rhetoric about how history should be delivered on TV and it tended to be rotund in its language and it tended to be, again, big guy talking about things that have conventionally been called ‘big history’.”

But, according to Beard, things have moved on. “I think there’s been a revolution on all levels in a very short time and the kind of stuff that people like Amanda Vickery has done about women, and now Amanda Foreman, and people looking at different sorts of history.”

Beard, whose new book SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is out later this month, picked out one of her own series, 2012 documentary Meet the Romans, as “very much on the cusp” of the transition in how history is presented on television. 

“I remember we’d said to the BBC we’d do something – we’d use the epitaphs of ordinary people to talk about what the Romans were like and there was a slight drawing of breath. Do people really want to see tombstones?

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“When we delivered the programme they said, ‘Oh, we could have had more of those.’ In a way, actually the period of making that television programme was almost when things were changing.”