Comparisons may be odious but sometimes they are irresistible — and, frankly, more fool the BBC for screening Treasures of Ancient Rome on the same night as The Shock of the New (Monday, BBC4). Here is Alastair Sooke on the spread of the Roman Empire: ‘Rome’s generals romped around the Med, sacking cities willy-nilly…’ Here is Robert Hughes (in 1980) on the impact of the first world war (and for anyone watching Parade’s End the implications of this speech — and indeed Hughes’s whole programme, The Powers That Be — will strike with particular resonance): ‘The life of words and images in art was changed radically and for ever because our culture had now entered the age of mass-produced, industrialised death, and at first there were no words to describe it…A chasm opened between official language and what the young knew to be reality: the speech of the elders could not contain their experiences…’ Hughes, wearing a suit and tie, delivers his introduction from beside a memorial at the Somme; Sooke, wearing a red plastic helmet, delivers his from a canoe.
Of course he does — after all, the Roman Empire is a laugh a minute and this is ‘Sooke’s Treasure Hunt’: watch him bump along the Via Appia in a Fiat 500! See him eat an ice cream at the seaside! Giggle as he describes scientists as ‘science boffins’, the Alexander Mosaic as ‘really mind-boggling’, and a bronze bust of the Emperor Augustus as the ‘Roman equivalent of Botox!’.
Sooke is confident and instructive when he is calm and stationary, but someone — perhaps someone wearing a spinning bow tie and pointing a water pistol — must have decreed that he should, above all things, entertain. Must all art historians now come dressed in comedy noses? And what, I wonder, would Robert Hughes have made of Sooke and that ice-cream cornet?
I did — albeit briefly — muster a childish sense of excitement at the prospect of the new Dallas (Wednesday, C5). Thirty-four years ago the nation blinked in wonder at that faraway land of oil and sin; now the show has been nipped and tucked for the 21st century. Dallas! Where real men wear pointy boots and shout, ‘That’s a damn lie!’ Where kissing and fighting are so gloriously interchangeable, and nobody ever goes outdoors!
The reason we remember the original (oh, come on now — I know you do) is that, back then, it stood out. The characters were extraordinary, their wealth was astonishing and their dentistry was awesome. Not any more: every US soap in 2012 is populated by the tanned, toned, heeled and pouting spawn of Planet Ewing. It took three and a half minutes to get to the (still fabulous) title sequence, but 30 seconds later boredom had descended like a dropped brick.
Not that we, over here, can afford to feel smug: British drama is prone to its own matchy-matchy look. Seaside location? Local girl murdered? Hard-working mother, well-meaning husband and saucy, hovering ex? That’ll be another ‘taut psychological thriller’ during which I anxiously wonder not who did the shooting, but where it’s been shot — and where someone bought those boots/that mackintosh/their cosy-looking hat.
Rosie (Hermione Norris) is married to Ben (Martin Clunes) and divorced from David (Paul McGann). David is a boat-mender who doesn’t shave, drives a pick-up and is still asleep in bed at 09:46; Ben is a solicitor who wears a cardigan, drives a Volvo and looks like a speaking teddy bear. (Rosie, we gather, has swapped her chaise-longue for a double bed.) Four teenagers — two apiece — share Rosie and Ben’s spacious family home, and one of them could be involved in a local murder.
What this drama (A Mother’s Son, Monday, Tuesday, ITV) set out to scrutinise was not the behaviour of the child but the reaction of the parent: Rosie trusts her own children and Ben trusts his; Rosie knows that hers don’t lie and Ben knows his don’t either. Each will protect their own before they protect the other’s. How can that situation be resolved?
Well, it can’t — it can only be concluded: sad faces all round, skid marks on the gravel, a trip to the local police station and the credits roll. Eh? That’s it? A murder committed, three families destroyed, two parents left childless, one marriage apparently ended and it tails off like…that? To have created something this anodyne from these ingredients might have been impressive had it not been so annoying. We had teetered at the edge of drama, but nothing had actually occurred; we had heard the exchange of dialogue, but learned nothing and got nowhere. Issues of interest had been exposed and then hastily covered over, as if a team of visiting corporate sponsors might take offence. It was hard to believe that this hasty conclusion could have been the writer’s original intention, but sometimes constraints exist which — oh, bother, I’ve run out of space.