The Greeks

Saturday, January 13, 2001 by

“A revolution has begun that will change the world. A moment of chaos and anarchy as the people have seized control of their destiny,” intones Liam Neeson portentously, and we know, this being 8pm, that we’re not yet in I Love the Eighties territory. Before we venture into the terrain of easy-going reminiscence of a long gone era, BBC2 have decided to give us a lesson in classical history.

Having studied aspects of Greek mythology in my formative years, been a regular viewer of the History Channel and a veteran player of Age of Empires, I feel somewhat well-disposed towardsThe Greeks. The first episode having centred around Athens establishing itself as the world’s first democracy, episode two deals with the continued rise of civilisation, Athens’ first decisive military success fending off the attentions of the oppressive Persian Empire, the building of the Parthenon and the origins of drama in the form of Greek tragedy. The daring plan of Themistocles ordering the construction of a navy and engineering the ambush of 200 Persian vessels in the straits of Salamis by Athenian triremes gave an intriguing insight into inspiring battle strategy without glamorising the concept of warmongering, whilst the strategist’s subsequent fall from grace in Athenian society, voted to be banished by the people due to fears of his rising political power revealed much about notions of pragmatic expediency lying behind the idealistic sheen of democracy.

A criticism that could be levelled at The Greeks is that it can be perceived as a dry exercise in academia, permitting no true entry point to the casual viewer. Is it the responsibility of programmes such as The Greeks to entertain or inform? There are many ways to make historical intrigue more accessible to an audience and the Athenian/Persian conflict and the banishment of Themistocles would make ideal subjects for dramatic presentation. Yet reconstruction of historical events in drama is an uncertain beast at best, oscillating between the heights attained by I, Claudius and the witless self-parody of The Borgias. A broad expanse of narrative is covered in The Greeks through an effective combination of convention such as the use of narration, filmed shots of models and artefacts, location filming of the actual ruins in Greece and commentary from various academic talking heads. A closed shop to some viewers, and something of an acquired taste, but an eminently successful format in its own right.

So where exactly does The Greeks lie in Jane Root’s vision for BBC2? I say the very existence of such a programme augurs well – I found The Greeks to be insightful, accessible and utterly absorbing. With I Love the Eighties to follow, I’m feeling an admiration for BBC2 that I’ve not had for some time, and I think I will enjoy the next few Saturday nights. After all, one can always spend time reading an edifying book and then settle down to enjoy a comic strip later in the evening?


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