There’s a British Museum exhibition about Pompeii & Herculaneum that’s recently opened, so there’ve been a few programmes on the BBC recently on the same subject. Last night we watched Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time – which was billed as a “drama documentary” so I was a little concerned (I don’t generally like too much dramatisation in my documentary viewing) but it turned out to be really good. It was presented by Margaret Mountford, and the way this was presented was as if I should know who she was – having looked her up on wikipedia it turns out she’s known for having been on The Apprentice (as a judge not a competitor). She’s not the presenter here as a “personality” – she’s recently got a PhD in Papyrology with a focus on Roman & Bzyantine Egypt, so she’s an expert in a field related to the programme’s subject. And as I was telling J this, he pointed out he’d heard of her coz she’s a trustee of the EES. I guess I probably should’ve heard of her 🙂
(I do tend to look up the presenters of programmes I watch on wikipedia if I don’t recognise them & even sometimes if I do – it’s interesting to see what else people’ve done.)
I do have some bits of criticism about the programme. Firstly, it suffered slightly from Discovery documentary syndrome in that it was constantly presented as “solving the mystery”. Also the script was oddly repetitive. Almost every time Mountford talked to an expert she’d ask a long detailed question, then the expert would repeat most of the question followed by their (short) answer, then Mountford would repeat most of the question prefaced with a phrase like “so now we know why …”. But those are just niggles, it was well worth watching.
Programmes we’ve watched before about Pompeii & Herculaneum (like Mary Beard’s one which I’ve got a brief write-up of on lj) have concentrated on what the towns tell us about how Romans lived. This programme concentrated on how they died, using what we now know about volcanoes and about the way that bodies react to different temperatures to build up a picture of the last day of these people’s lives. It was actually a fairly distressing programme – nothing gruesome shown, but they did a good job of bringing across the horror of the event and of making you empathise with the people. The “drama” side of this drama documentary was limited to some (really rather impressive) CGI of the eruption and some vignettes of people running through the streets or huddling in shelter – which was just about the right amount of drama for me.
Pliny the Younger had actually described the eruption from witnessing it across the Bay of Naples, but some elements of his description had been dismissed in more recent times as being the result of an overactive imagination. In particular he described a part of the column of smoke & ash as separating off and rolling down the mountain. “Obviously” this had to be wrong, surely only lava spills out over the land. This view was then completely overturned by footage of the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 – another way for a volcano to erupt involves a pyroclastic flow of superheated gas & bits of rock & ash that moves very very fast along the ground (at or over the speed of sound). Mountford talked to an expert who said that this happens when the magma has a lot of gas in it.
It was these pyroclastic flows that killed the people in both Herculaneum and Pompeii – the differences in the remains between the towns is caused by the different distances from Vesuvius. There were 5 pyroclastic flows in total, all of which reached Herculaneum. The people in the town had taken shelter in the boat sheds which would’ve been a safe place in the event of an earthquake (and the eruption was preceded by earthquakes). When the first pyroclastic flow reached Herculaneum it was still at a temperature of about 500°C. The people huddling in the boat sheds died instantly, and the temperature was sufficiently high to vaporise their flesh leaving only charred bones and cracked skulls from where their brains had boiled and exploded. As I said, gruesome.
Pompeii is about 5km further from Vesuvius than Herculaneum, and the first 3 pyroclastic flows didn’t reach that far. In fact it wasn’t until dawn the next day (about 18 hours after the initial eruption) that Pompeii was in true danger. This had been enough time that some people had even returned to their houses to grab their valuables & coin, which would be fatal. The fourth pyroclastic flow reached Pompeii, and the added distance it had travelled had reduced the heat to around 300°C. Mountford visited a lab in Edinburgh where they demonstrated what happens to a piece of pork wrapped in woollen cloth at that temperature. The outside edges of the meat were seared but the cloth was still intact & only slightly discoloured. And this is what happened to the inhabitants of Pompeii – they were instantaneously killed by the heat, but their clothing & flesh remained intact. They were then buried in ash which formed a solid shell around their bodies. Inside these shells the soft tissue & cloth gradually decomposed, and when they were discovered the archaeologists filled the spaces with plaster & then removed the ash. This left the casts around the bones that we see today – complete with impressions of the clothes the people were wearing.
The last part of the programme was about an artist doing facial reconstructions of two of the victims – a woman from Herculaneum and a man from Pompeii. These are always neat to see, and humanise the remains, but I do wonder how accurate they are. I mean, you can tell some stuff about facial structure from the bones, but would their mothers’ recognise them?
Glad we recorded it even though it said “drama documentary”, it was a good programme.
The sixth & last episode of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music talked about the last 100 years of music – the Popular Age. The biggest difference between this era and previous eras is that the advent of radio and of easily available recorded music changed how people could listen to music. It became more omnipresent and you could listen to what you wanted when you wanted to.
The main theme of the programme was that as classical music became increasingly remote and snobbish the vacuum was filled by popular music – starting with jazz. One example of this that Goodall presented was musicals. The same sorts of people who previously would’ve gone to operas in the 19th Century are those who go to the musicals performed on Broadway or the West End today. And popular music took over the role of commenting on current affairs as classical became increasingly abstract or irrelevant. He contrasted the Threepenny Opera* or Porgy and Bess with a surrealist ballet called Parade (score written by Satie; Cocteau & Picasso were involved). The former two were relevant (and well liked by audiences) whereas the latter was out of touch with the times and not accessible/interesting to a particularly wide audience either. Later, after the Second World War, popular music continued to provide social commentary – Vietnam protest songs, for instance, and Bob Dylan’s work.
*I had no idea that the song Mack the Knife was originally a German song in this musical! Odd & cool to hear it being sung in the original.
Classical music during this period moved towards things like Schoenberg’s abstract compositional style where the 12 notes of the western scale aren’t allowed to be repeated within a phrase, and where there’s no “home” chord. Basically we’re into the sort of thing that in my head I think of as “that modern classical stuff I don’t like”. But Goodall points out that this isn’t all that classical is doing during the last 100 years and people claiming that “classical is dead” clearly never go to the cinema! Most film scores are classical music and are written in a style that’s appreciated by a much wider audience than the more avant garde stuff.
Goodall talked us through some of the developments in popular music as well. Not just jazz, but also the rise of rock & roll and the way that was initially shaped by the new teenage market for music. He spent a while discussing The Beatles, and how they moved from their rock & roll beginnings. They not only innovated within their genre, inventing new styles & recording techniques, but also drew on the past of classical music (amongst other things). And this lead neatly into a discussion of how even though American rock & roll has spread throughout the world it has also started to incorporate music from other cultures (and there has also been a rise in people listening to the originals of this music). The Indian influences on The Beatles music were the first point in this segment of the programme, he also mentioned Paul Simon’s South African influenced album Graceland.
He also talked about how classical music was still the source of some innovations that were later taken up by popular music – he cited sampling, which originated with a classical piece but is now one of the foundational underpinnings of a lot of popular music. And he discussed how the cross-fertilisation between the two sorts of music is beginning to work both ways – some modern classical composers are taking ideas & inspiration from popular artists (he gave an example of a symphony that took inspiration from a Bowie album). So Goodall ended the series on a hopeful note for classical music – it’s not dead, and it’s even coming back to being relevant to a wider audience than music critics & composers.
I’ve enjoyed watching this series, it was both informative & interesting. It’s also pretty biased – very much it’s the story of Western classical music (even this last episode is more about the classical music of the era than the popular music). But then he does say right at the start of the first episode that “there are many ways to tell the story of music, this one is [his]” so that’s not a surprise.