BBC Radio 4, Saturday 4pm, from 1st November 1997 to 6th December 1997.
Review by Janet Fletcher.
When BBC Radio 4 announced the forthcoming series The Romans in Britain, I looked forward to it with a mixture of trepidation and anticipation, the former in view of the recent alleged 'dumbing down' of BBC programmes in general. The programme justified both of these feelings for me.
The trepidation was enhanced when, not having listened to the live broadcast and still attempting to find time to listen to the tapes, I heard Radio 4's Feedback programme. This contained listener's letters complaining about the patronising tone of the programme and the presentation style of Guy de la Bédoyère.
I have to admit that, on a personal level, I found the style adopted by de la Bédoyère, that of breathless excitement aimed at keeping the attention of the under 10's, a little patronising. However his obvious enthusiasm for the subject matter was endearing and refreshing. He approached each area of research, not as a jaded academic, but as a child approaches presents. Every area of discussion was unwrapped with skill and enthusiasm, both by de la Bédoyère and the experts interviewed. There were, however, a few moments when this 'excitement' was allowed to get the better of judgement. Questions were interpolated into a discussion, which were clearly unnecessary, as they had been or were about to be answered in the narrative of the interviewee. In general however, the experts were allowed to be just that and the audience was consequently enlightened.
Another problem I experienced was the extraneous background noise that accompanied de la Bédoyère's presentation. The noise of driving along the A1, people shopping, sea waves, all tied in with the subject under discussion to a greater or lesser degree, but were generally unnecessary and distracting.
Nevertheless, my anticipation was more than rewarded by the positive aspects of the series. The Romans in Britain was broadcast in six parts, each part dealing with a specific aspect of life in Roman Britain. The topics included the evidence for conquest and occupation, trade and industry, and the people themselves -- the Romano-British.
The main theme running through the series was the representation of the Romans in a positive light, but largely without too much of a politically correct makeover. The conquest for example is now regarded as both a military and diplomatic coup for Rome, with the evidence for warfare (Maiden Castle) and diplomacy (client kingdoms), as well as diplomacy gone wrong (the Boudiccan revolt), discussed by the contributors.
The benign influence of Rome was a theme for these programmes. We were told that the Romans sent lawyers to interpret the laws of the conquered country, with little alteration to and a great deal of integration of existing laws. Religious tolerance was also discussed positively, again with integration as the main theme and, as an aside, it was suggested that even today we may learn something from the Roman attitude: Roman dispositions towards native religions were compared with modern Imperialism and Christianisation.
Other modern parallels include coinage; Rome was credited with introducing the first single European currency. (One would hope that the method of doing so, conquest, is not being mooted as a solution to today's troubled attempts to establish monetary union!).
The strength of the series lay in a number of devices. Programmes one to five each dealt with a topic, but integrated these into the whole. For instance trade and industry were discussed in relation to the conquest and the economy of the indigenous people. The documentary and archaeological evidence was drawn on to examine the military and social implications.
Each programme was also a history of the Roman occupation in Britain in miniature. The application of a chronological framework within each topically cross-referenced programme lifted the series out of the ABC/123 style, which may be suitable for schools programmes, but is also often aimed at an adult audience.
Programme six departed slightly from this pattern, dealing with the end of Roman Britain and the magic date of 410 AD. The topic demanded the chronology be firmly situated in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. Again contributors provided insight into the military and social problems encountered during this period of upheaval and assessed objectively the actual effects on the structure of Romano-British lifestyle and economy, as well as dealing with the possible facts behind the myths surrounding the British resistance to Germanic invasion.
The series throughout has provided discussion with evidence and avoided the tendency, exhibited by many programmes, to jump erratically from one topic or one era to another. Interesting little twists on the normal representation of Rome were teased out; for example the Houseteads murder victims - two skeletons, one with a knife blade in the vertebrae, were buried under a clay floor in a cellar - testify to a most successful murder, undiscovered for two thousand years; the presence of Roman "white" goods such as mortaria, perhaps the equivalent to a modern food processor; the introduction of new foods, which include both the exotic (grapes) and the prosaic (carrots, brassicas).
The impact of Rome on the 'ordinary' population was also highlighted; the vicus as a place for 'Rest & Recreation' from the fort, eventually providing wives and then more soldiers from subsequent generations; the level of literacy, where a tile maker was able to scratch his name in Latin on his work; the potential benefits of Latin in mixed nationality marriages, such as that between Romano-British Regina and Syrian Berates.
The Romans in Britain was an enjoyable and informative stroll through the archaeological and documentary evidence for an important period of our history. The independent production roots of the programme did not affect its overall calibre and the requirements of commercial viability have, not yet at least, affected BBC radio. There is a need for more programmes in this style and for others in a more academic vein, in the areas of science, archaeology and history, to balance the predominantly visual and performing arts bias of BBC radio. In its 75th anniversary year the BBC has with The Romans in Britain adequately fulfilled its brief to 'educate and inform', whilst maintaining its ability to entertain.
Janet Fletcher is a 3rd Year PhD student in the Department of Archaeology and Prehistory at the University of Sheffield. Her research interests are primate and hominid evolution. Her interest in Roman archaeology stems from her first degree in Archaeology and History at the University of Manchester.
© Janet Fletcher 1997
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