sat 22/06/2024

Who Were the Greeks?, BBC Two/Eye Spy, Channel 4 | reviews, news & interviews

Who Were the Greeks?, BBC Two/Eye Spy, Channel 4

Who Were the Greeks?, BBC Two/Eye Spy, Channel 4

Delightful new series on ancient Greece. Dreadful new series on modern Britons

Bearing gifts: assistant professor Dr Michael Scott

When television goes off exploring classical civilisation, you can hear those lines from The Life of Brian chiming in your head. “Apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order... what have the Romans done for us?” Such has been the glut of Roman TV in recent times that no couch potato is in any further doubt. The Romans have kept the plebs royally entertained.

But what of the Greeks?

The ancient ones, that is. (Of their modern descendants we know quite enough from the financial pages.) What about the silhouettes who fight and frot on the flanks of all those Grecian urns? Where the Romans were all about infrastructure, most would agree that the Hellenic legacy consists of philosophy, tragedy and arithmetic, the Olympics and The Odyssey. Just think, without the Greeks there would be no Alain de Botton or Sir Bradley Wiggins or triangles.

Happily he passed on a visit to an all-male bathhouse, while shots of tankers standing in for triremes were few

However familiar ancient Greece may feel, we should not fall into the trap of believing they were Like Us. It’s moot whether anyone does think that, but let us heed the advice of assistant professor Dr Michael Scott, because he is our guide to nude wrestling, peer-reviewed man-on-boy love, child sacrifice, slavery and other practices no longer in quite such vogue as they once indubitably were. So yes, Who Were the Greeks? (BBC Two, ****).

Before we answer that, let’s consider the subsidiary question: who is assistant professor Dr Michael Scott? Classical boffins may recall him from previous films for BBC Four about theatre and luxury and Delphi (where the oracle comes from), but his promotion to BBC Two lands him in the big league where audiences cluster and take notice. AA Gill, whose particular taste is for scholars who look like catwalk models, will be purring with pleasure as the assistant professor’s sheer presentability. Dr Scott is quite the dish and he speaks lovely Greek too, all the time. The only word he doesn’t seem to know is Εγώ. (Yes I did look that up.)

This was an engaging primer, high on digestible information and low on condescension. This being contemporary TV, Dr Scott was required to do a statutory bit of ancient Athenian wrestling known as pankration and snarf a vile Spartan broth mainly consisting of pig’s blood. He demonstrated how hard it is to sip wine while draped on a chaise like a right-thinking Greek. All were achieved with dignity intact. Happily he passed on a visit to an all-male bathhouse, while shots of tankers standing in for triremes were few. No babies were pretend-sacrificed in the making of this programme. If there is a Greek god of television, may he or she be praised.

Meanwhile in less good news there is Eye Spy (Channel 4, **), in which the morality of the nation is tested in a series of Candid Camera scenarios. “I’m going to give the British people the chance to stand up and be counted,” said Stephen Fry from the back of a cab on the way to record his voiceover, while letting some other bloke do the presenting work for a rather smaller fee. Members of the public were invited to react to a racist waiter, assist (or ignore) a schoolboy in a wheelchair or take the chance to nick an unlocked bike or, more substantially, 30 grand left in a phone booth. If the British public needs any further test of its decency, it’ll leave this charmless, half-baked hotch-potch alone.

Jasper Rees on Twitter

Just think, without the Greeks there would be no Alain de Botton or Sir Bradley Wiggins or triangles

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'Who Were the Greeks?' It sounded like mildly interesting idea for a programme and it certainly has potential, although much of what was revealed about the toughness of the Spartans was standard 1st form history fodder decades ago. Scott is an able presenter, but unfortunately it turned out to be yet another 'popular classics' experience, focussing on his assets as eye-candy rather than his undoubted intellectual skills. Although I must be in the target demographic for this kind of offering, I gave up the struggle half-way through, tiring of the current vogue for choppy video editing, where the expressions on presenters' faces take precedence over brief glimpses of the actual subject. I'm so glad that I don't have a 50inch TV, and have to be invited to a dermatological examination of every budding Brain Cox as they fill the screen gazing wistfully at something which we cannot see as it is out of focus or out of shot.

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