Sex and poo in Pompeii (live)

18th June 2013

(There is quite a bit of cooking and gardening too.)

To the pleasing Picturehouse in Stratford-upon-Avon for Pompeii Live. This is a live-to-cinema broadcast from the British Museum blockbuster and yet another offering in the increasingly crowded ‘alternative content’ marketplace. The idea is a private view of the show, minus the crowds and with the added pleasure of curators and experts as guides. Slick and smart it most definitely is, with Peter Snow and Bettany Hughes presenting and guests appearances from curator Paul Roberts, classicist Mary Beard, archaeologist Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli (with the super-ritzy Locanda Locatelli name-checked in his lower-third) and gardening expert Rachel de Thame. I enjoy it in a slightly low-key kind of a way, although on Twitter you can find expressions of near-ecstasy appended to #PompeiiLive (along with the wry reflection – above – from another eminent historian and television presenter). But what I muse on most as I sit through the 85 minutes is (a) what makes this ‘live’ (very little, I conclude), and (b) what difference is there between this and television (ditto).

We open with some sweeping shots outside and in the inner court of the BM as we are introduced to our hosts. Live or pre-recorded? Hard to say, and this is a question that seems unanswerable for much of the show. Does it matter? Almost certainly not to most of those watching, but it’s part of the come-on of the title. Anyway, after a bit of dramatic scene-setting (using some fragments of archive that will get become old friends by the end of the show) we’re into the centre of the exhibition talking to Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum and a highly accomplished media man.

Peter Snow tries to kick off a timeline for the show to take us through the last 36 hours or so of Pompeii and Herculaneum, but without any accompanying graphics it’s hard for this idea to take root. The recon of events (cue the same bought-in archive) plays second-string throughout to the exchanges in the galleries between our presenters and our experts. And this is where the event works best, with Mary talking about drinking with Peter and sex with Bettany Paul giving a sense of other aspects of daily life, Peter grilling Andrew about what he had excavated from a Pompeii sewer, Giorgio waxing lyrical over a carbonised loaf, and Rachel marvelling at the birds and plants in the garden frescoes.

These scenes are focussed on the objects in the show, and are both entertaining and informative. It helps that Mary has a Latin inscription that she can translate as ‘cock-sucker’, Bettany can express faux-shock at Pan having sex with a goat, and Rachel can pick out from the mural a rose that has been tied lovingly to a stake. A distinct murmur of pleasure comes from the Warwickshire horde of horticulturalists who have packed Screen 2 at the Picturehouse.

I’m not quite sure that the production team get the tone quite right for all of the sex and the poo – there is a trace of we-can’t-quite-believe-we-can-do-this smugness about how they are managing to chat so unconcernedly about willies and to marvel so enthusiastically about a wind chime held up by three phalluses. But at the end of the day it is all good, clean fun, even when Peter marvels that Andrew has dug up an exhibition case (and much more) full of stuff thrown away in the shit.

The technology works well, the camera shots (often relying on interpolated slides to give us close-up views of objects) are well-chosen, it looks handsome and (for its audience) it is immaculately cast. Not a weak link in the team. The only mis-step, I felt, is a sequence in which Bettany handles a beautiful gold bracelet set with emeralds and is shown, out of a display case (inside of which we see most of the objects) some gorgeous glass perfume holders. Paul Roberts rather rapidly notes at the start of the sequence that these are objects from the BM’s own collection ‘just like’ those in the show. So, um, not actually from Pompeii or Herculaneum then. It feels like an unnecessary sleight-of-hand shuffle.

What is at no point on offer is any sense of Pompeii beyond the daily life (and death) represented in the exhibition. So no filming from the site itself (too expensive, presumably) and only a minimal sense of how Pompeii and Herculaneum related to Italy and the Empire of the time, or indeed what was going on in the world beyond. Politics? No thanks, let’s look at another phallus. Nor are there any fancy graphics to recreate how the towns might have looked at the time.

That recreation, of course, is what television would have done – and has done, on numerous occasions (even once with us, back in 2002, for our Channel 4 show The Private Lives of Pompeii). Yet in so many other respects, Pompeii Live is simply TV on the big screen. It’s just that we are watching it with strangers in the dark.  The presenters are familiar TV figures, as are all of the experts. Key members of the production team are from television. The obsessions are quintessentially those of television too. Cooking and gardening, most certainly, and definitely sex as well, even if the small-screen has never wholly embraced the scatological.  In a world not too far back in the past you could easily have imagined BBC Two or Channel 4 devoting an hour and a half to a major exhibition from the BM. Television’s disdain today is the big screen’s gain.

Which leaves us with the question of how the event benefits from being (for the most part) ‘live’. I think the contributions of Mary and Andrew in particular are pitched a little higher because of the adrenalin of a live broadcast. But for the rest of the show what is actually on the screen has no need to be live. There is no uncertain outcome, no unfolding event, little likelihood of a screw-up, absolutely no jeopardy. The comparable cinema show Manet: Portraying Life from the Royal Academy back in April (see my blog post here) simply took the documentary route, with – I think – not too much discernible difference.

Here, the live is all tied up with making this an event to get people to leave their homes and go to the cinema. As a one-time-only thing (although there are encore screenings to come), it feels more urgent, perhaps more interesting. Although then again, did anyone in the audience apart from me care about this question? An audience for this, live or not, there most certainly is, and at the end of the day we should be thrilled that our media mix today can welcome another rich strand of cultural content. On, I gather, at least as far the BM is concerned, to Vikings Live.


  1. Charlotte says:

    I care! And I also thought it didn’t really need to be ‘live’, especially if it meant I could watch it from the internet or at home without the rather expensive (for a student) price tag.

    I found large parts of the shot quite immature, which frustrated me. And I found the reference to Bettany as ‘Fruity’ (or whatever it was) completely unacceptable.

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