CHRISTOPHER STEVENS on TV: Pompeii victims come back to life

CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews last night’s TV: A terrified child, a mum-to-be… Pompeii victims come back to life

Pompeii: Secrets Of The Dead

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The Hairy Bikers Go North

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History demands imagination to bring it to life. Bones and stones aren’t enough — we need a spark of theatre.

Professor Bettany Hughes brought that in boatloads as she delved into new discoveries and evoked the destruction of a Roman city in Pompeii: Secrets Of The Dead (C5). She helped us see those familiar plaster casts of the volcano’s victims not as museum pieces, but as completely human.

The most affecting of them was a small boy, aged about four, found in the stairwell of a grand villa.

The deluge of boiling ash from the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD preserved the ghostly outline of his body so clearly that we could see the tiny amulet around his neck.

Raksha Dave, Bettany Hughes, and John Sergeant on location for Pompeii: Secrets Of The Dead

All Prof Hughes’s maternal instincts were stirred at the sight of his toga, rucked around his waist as he struggled for air. ‘I know it’s ridiculous,’ she admitted, ‘but you almost feel guilty that you can’t help him in his suffering.’

It’s rare for a historian to bring such empathy to their work. Once we’d seen that small body as somebody’s frightened, vulnerable child, it became easier to relate to the stories behind other, more fragmented remains.

A female skeleton, uncovered in the nearby port of Herculaneum, proved to be that of a pregnant 20-year-old. The heat that killed her was so intense that her metal hair ornament was fused to her skull — preserving a piece of the plait beneath.

Tense atmosphere of the night: 

After clumsy presenter Mel Giedroyc broke Charlie’s bed last week in Handmade: Britain’s Best Woodworker (C4), the mood between them is visibly edgy and awkward. I don’t think they’ll be exchanging Christmas cards. 

The Prof argued convincingly that this young woman was among more than 50 people desperate to be rescued as they crowded onto the harbourside. She even identified one of the rescuers — a soldier in his early 40s, with an ornate sword that revealed him as one of the emperor’s elite Praetorian naval guards.

The officer appeared to be trying to lead the refugees onto a boat, probably to take them to safety on a warship in the harbour, when a cloud of blistering poison gases engulfed the docks.

Studying his jaw, which was missing several teeth — knocked out in battle, the Prof suggested — she wondered whether he couldn’t help whistling as he talked. ‘It’s almost as if he’s trying to tell us what he was like when he was alive,’ she said.

How extraordinary that nobody lived to tell this hero’s story — yet it emerges almost 2,000 years later, thanks to a few decayed remains and the power of imagination.

Moustachioed foodie Dave Myers was bringing history to life, too, on a Northumbrian beach in The Hairy Bikers Go North (BBC2).

‘Odin! Odin!’ he called, waving his arms in genuflexion, as his mate Si King barbecued beef fillets in brandy and butter flambé at the water’s edge.

The last time Odin worshippers lit fires on the sands below Bamburgh Castle, they were Vikings, on their way to pillage the locals.

The only pillaging these boys want to do is at the cafes and hostelries along the coast. They keep claiming they’re on a diet but, by Thor, they can’t half put it away.

One wooden platter at a fish shop came piled with lobsters, langoustines, mussels, crabs, salmon and squid. Si and Dave demolished it, taking turns to finish each other’s sentences through mouthfuls of seafood.

Then they complained it didn’t come with chips, and went in search of a few sacks of potatoes to fry. Back on the beach, they built a blaze on the sand, to roast lamb shanks. A passing labrador waddled up to have a sniff.

Dave started urging the dog to join them. Wisely, it kept its distance. These two could scoff a labrador as a side dish.

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