Mary Beard: “I’ve got a wonderful soft spot for Up Pompeii!”

The classicist and documentary presenter reveals her love of the BBC classic and Gladiator – but she's not a fan of HBO's Rome...

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As a professor of classics at the University of Cambridge, and the presenter of a fair few documentaries on the Ancient World, Mary Beard knows a thing or two about Roman civilisation. In fact, while some of us associate ancient Rome with Latin and those funny helmets that look a bit like elongated toilet brushes, the renowned classicist has written a string of books, including her definitive guide – SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.

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So, what does she make of the depiction of the ancient city on screen? “I really loved Gladiator. I cried, actually, when I first saw [it] – and not just because of the husband of the murdered or whatever it was,” she told an audience at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

Beard went on to add that while CGI was in its early days, the rendition of some elements of the colosseum were “absolutely spot on.”

“It gave you a very Roman view of gladiators which is much messier and much more artistically sadistic – dressing people up as mythical characters and then burning them, this kind of thing, as against the rather sanitised view we have of a couple of guys with heavy armour fighting it out in the middle of the arena. I thought that was very good.”

But while it may perhaps come as little surprise that she is a fan of the multiple Oscar-winning Ridley Scott epic, Beard also admitted her penchant for Lurcio and Ludicrus Sextus and their escapades on a certain beloved BBC sitcom.

“I’ve got a wonderful soft spot for Up Pompeii,” she revealed.

The 1970s comedy was due to be part of the BBC’s recent sitcom season, with a remake planned to sit alongside the reboots of Are You Being Served?, Goodnight Sweetheart and Hancock’s Half Hour, but the pilot was canned after producers’ dream casting Miranda Hart chose not to take part.

Beard – who has also worked as an advisor for film and television series – added that filmmakers “raise their game” when it comes to re-creating the intricacies of Ancient Rome: “You’ll find that screenplayers are very, very concerned to get the detail right – ‘can you tell me what breed of dog it would be?’ – while they have a whole plot that’s completely unlikely.

“I don’t want to get rid of the myths of Rome, I just want people to have a clearer view that they are myths. Rome has always been larger than life – more excess, more food, more wine, more sex than the whole world.”

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However, while Gladiator and Up Pompeii tick her boxes, there is one TV series that Beard considers not up to scratch. “I didn’t much like HBO’s Rome,” she said. “I thought the setting was brilliant, I just got bored of the plot.”