By and large, I don’t tend to tell you about bad television here.

In a multichannel environment of sometimes bewildering choice, I try to use the privilege of seeing TV programmes earlier than most to pick the diamonds out of the dirt for you.

It seems unnecessary for me to point out where the rubbish is.


But I can’t tell you about everything that’s good. A case in point is Meet The Romans. A combination of a website redesign for The Lady and an inconveniently-scheduled half-term holiday meant that I didn’t find time to tell you about BBC2’s rather modern look at that already well-explored ancient civilisation.

Which is a shame, because it’s great.

It’s fronted by Professor Mary Beard. What she doesn’t know about The Romans isn’t worth putting in three one-hour television documentaries about the ordinary people of Rome.

Full disclosure: I worked with Mary Beard when we were both at The Times and I found her a charming, open-minded individual. It’s through that lens of liking the presenter that I make any judgements about the quality of her programme.

One of the things that made Rome unusual is that people became citizens of that vast sprawling empire as much by choice as by conquest. In a time when over a thousand people a week are showing up at Britain’s gates, asking to join our club, a bit of historical perspective can only be a plus.



Now, I like to get a bit of perspective about my own efforts too. I keep an eye on my opposite numbers at other publications to see if there are any great shows I’m missing, or if I’ve said something impossibly daft about something I have seen.

One of my favourites is AA Gill, who writes for the Sunday Times Culture section. He tends to pick many of the same shows that I do, and seems in the main to agree with my appraisals of them. That’s long been a comfort.

His take on Meet The Romans was peculiar to say the least though. It opened with a needless, and in my view unwarranted, ad hominem snipe at Mary Beard’s personal appearance.



I thought at the time that it was a silly thing to have said. It seems now to have become quite a cause célèbre with several writers more gifted than me springing to Mary’s defence.

I won’t add any fuel to that particular fire. Gill said something very silly. I suspect he knows he said something very silly and no words from me are going to make him feel any sillier.

 But what it does bring to the fore is an old argument that we still haven’t resolved. Is the job of television documentaries to educate us? Or are they just a beauty contest?



There is already an abundance of factual shows fronted by celebrities with only the most tenuous relationship to the subject matter. They’re hired because television producers think that we viewers won’t pay attention to documentaries unless the presenter is attractive or at least familiar-looking.

The seem to think that hiring a person who knows a lot about the subject is no longer enough.

And, annoyingly, the cynics are right. I hate it when that happens.

We do seem to watch factual shows in greater numbers if Martin Clunes or Alan Titchmarsh have their name in the title. That doesn’t reflect badly on the television companies so much as it reflects badly on us.

So let’s buck the trend. The second episode of the splendid Meet The Romans is on BBC2 at 9pm tonight and it’s definitely worth a look. If you’re as disorganised as I am, you can catch up on the previous episode on the BBC iPlayer here.



And, for what it’s worth, Mary Beard isn’t as unappealing as Mr Gill suggests. Probably closer to the right-hand end of the Hedy Lamarr-Margaret Rutherford scale than the left, but possessed of an infectious twinkly-eyed enthusiasm for her subject that’s immensely winning.

And she is, I think we can all agree, a good deal easier on the eye than Edward Gibbon.

Or, for that matter, AA Gill.