“I was drinking white wine,” says Mary Beard. “I can’t remember which type, but the glass was quite low by the end of the show.” The classicist, co-presenter of Civilisations and now the face and brains of Front Row Late is telling me how she got through the nerves of the first edition. “Live telly is absolutely scary, but we’re on an upward curve. Things aren’t born fully formed, you know.”
The arts review show is reinventing itself after a troubled launch in an early evening Saturday slot last year. Previous presenter Giles Coren left in January, but his card had been marked since boasting to RT in September 2017 that he “didn’t go to the theatre much”.
“I think he was a brave boy to say that,” Beard says. “But ours is going to be a bit of a different show.” Not least because she reads books, listens to music, takes in shows and sees films. And she goes to the theatre “more than Giles!”
So, what culture does Britain’s most cultured woman really like? Beard is 63, so her popular tastes are shaped by the late 1960s and the 1970s. “In the first series, I fronted an edition where we had David Gilmour [ ex-Pink Floyd] and I suppose my generation was the first to be really confident that their rock music was important, rather than just something that you listen to. But there’s also going to be a learning curve for me. I’m clearly going to have to get into grime, I know that.”
Before any hook-up with Stormzy she’ll be enjoying opera. “I’ve got a fantastic opera date coming up,” she says. “The director Peter Sellars, who I think is brilliant, is doing Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, about the Emperor Titus. And I love it when friends take me to Glyndebourne, which I couldn’t afford myself.” She can’t be hard up? “Everybody knows opera is expensive, but companies have been doing a lot to open up tickets and make them more affordable. And we should thank God for British museums and galleries that are still free. When you see that the new Monet exhibition at the National Gallery is £20 a ticket, it’s a substantial bit of cash.”
David Olusoga, Mary Beard and Simon
So, what other free art would she recommend? “The fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square is really extraordinary – it’s one of the great British cultural institutions. It gets really interesting, cutting edge bits of modern art into the public space. Go to Trafalgar Square and you see people are enjoying it, they’re talking about it, and they are talking about stuff which often you think, ‘If this was put in a rather posh gallery, people would be quite put off it.’ ”
And then there’s the library. “I’m afraid this sounds frightfully old-ladyish. I read Jane Eyre again, which I first read when I was 12.” Was she a happy 12-year-old? “I’m not quite sure that anyone on the cusp of being a teenager is happy exactly, but I had a good time, and I do remember being very struck by it; it’s the novel that’s stuck with me.” She has also just re-read Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars, as she’s involved with The Silver Caesars: a Renaissance Mystery at Waddesdon Manor. “It’s Renaissance silverware and it’s absolutely stunning. Each piece is a different Roman leader.” Which sounds little like a busman’s holiday, as does her theatre going. “We’ve had some great Julius Caesars recently. I really enjoyed the RSC’s, when they did all the Roman plays, and I’ve seen Nicholas Hytner’s Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre [starring David Morrissey and Ben Whishaw].”
Does she call out corrections from the stalls – “That toga’s wrong” or “Caesar wouldn’t say that”? “I try to leave Mary Beard the classicist in the cloakroom but sometimes I bring her right into the stalls and get a lot out of that. I see something like Julius Caesar or even Gladiator, a big popular movie, and it shines a different light on things that I think I know well.”
Generally, she isn’t a fan of Hollywood. “Some Hollywood films are a bit tainted by what we’ve found out about what Hollywood is really like. I think we were a bit naive, to not know what was happening, but you can’t avoid it now. I’m certainly not going to say I won’t see a Woody Allen movie again.
“But what you’ve got to do is get your head around the fact that there’s this guy who makes brilliant movies, and we don’t really like him very much. There’s a wider issue about how we think about the creators of the works of art – everything that goes from their human frailty, to put it mildly, to something close to nastiness. It’s too simple to say, ‘Oh, I just won’t look at his films any more.’ ”
Is it OK to enjoy good work by bad men? “Take Tate Modern’s Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy. It’s a great show, but the publicity was all: the great genius, so troubled because he’s got the wife at home and a mistress he is painting all the time! Well, it would have looked very different from his wife’s point of view!
“But I don’t think that we’re going to get very far if art by bad people is no longer up on display.” Not surprisingly, Beard doesn’t get much time for television but she swears by BBC iPlayer: “My generation think, ‘I’ll watch it live when it’s transmitted’, but iPlayer means the actual moment of transmission isn’t important any longer. It means you have the freedom to watch Front Row Late, whenever you like.” Perhaps with a glass of something white?
Front Row Late is on Friday night at 11.05pm on BBC2