Discussion / Events

Classics on TV and Visualising Reading

By the power of a friend with an invite, I found myself at the Newnham event ‘Classics on Camera’ last Friday, where the fac’s own Mary Beard was talking with her director and producer about the Pompeii TV programme they made for BBC2 and their new series on Roman life (coming soon!). They covered various aspects of making a television programme like this – including financing issues and dealing with the Italian museum authorities – but the part I was most interested in was the discussion of how they construct their narrative.

It seems that Prof. Beard was rather adamant that there would be no CGI or actor reconstructions, and all televisual illustration was going to have to come from the Roman material itself – artefacts, paintings, ruins, skeletons etc. Going by the clips we saw and what I remember of the Pompeii programme when it aired, this served things well, creating a story from what Latin inscriptions and material objects could evoke, with all their possibilities, rather than what some bod with a computer managed to interpret. ‘Trust the material’ was apparently the mantra for the evening; I don’t think it was a bad one.

I was left wondering, however, as I am always left solipsistically wondering by TV on the ancient world, about how could you do the same thing with literature. Say – ooh, I dunno – Homer? Outside of translation and screenplays full of CGI and actors, it seems to me that it shouldn’t be impossible to produce a documentary about the reading of ancient texts, but I’ve never seen it done and don’t really know how you’d go about it. Of course, I can’t immediately recall a documentary on the transmission or reception history of an ancient text, which you think would be a much more standard thing to do, so maybe they need to get out there first.

On a smaller scale, though, you face the problem of visualising reading with Powerpoint in papers and presentations. How are you meant to visualise your argument without just throwing some Greek on a slide (or a handout, which in the end is basically more useful for everyone to take notes on)? How do you create something that isn’t just a book on screen, but shows the dynamics of interacting with that book?

A digram indicating six hypertextual practices: parody, travesty, transposition, pastiche, caricature and forgery

from G. Genette 'Palimpsests' (Paris 1982) p.28 (tr. Newman and Doubinsky 1997)

It’s not as if literary theory is averse to diagrams, as this one from Genette’s Palimpsestesshows. However, tabulation like this is only really useful for categorisation. There’s always the trusty highlighter pen for closer readings, say if you want to look at repeated words in a passage – but if you take a concept like ‘genre’, for example, I’m less certain where you could go. What I’d like is a visualisation of the expectations and constraints the words then have to wiggle around, but that sounds very much like a recipe for bad CGI and potentially oldskool science lesson videos.

Having said that, however… There is always kinetic typography.

It’s unashamedly CGI’d, but I can almost see it – ‘μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ’ with drumbeats for the metre. Is that what a textual documentary would need?


20 thoughts on “Classics on TV and Visualising Reading

  1. I went to an amazing performance of the Iliad once – two guys on stage, no scenery, pretty much nothing in the way of props or costumes, just narrating the story. Obviously it was a very free and much-condensed adaptation – but still, it was a brilliant way of telling the story and probably the closest we can really get now to the original style of performance, and I don’t see why it couldn’t, in theory at least, work with (selections from!) a direct translation/the original. Though I’m not sure how well it would translate to TV; I think the live performance aspect may have been part of what made it work so well, and I don’t think watching a video of the same two storytellers would necessarily have had the same effect…so not that much help on the documentary front!

    (PS if you want literary theory diagrams, I’m sure I still have my colour-coded exploding-spider-diagrams of Homeric fate, somewhere…)

    • I bet that was amazing! I think the thing for me is that that’s still a performance – like, it’s an act of reading rather than about the act of reading, which is usually what I’m trying to discuss and what I’d really want in my perfect documentary. What I really like about the kinetic typography is the way it makes visual a lot of what is implied by the performance of the text ie. script – the emphasis on repeated words, the lists, the inversion of statements into questions, speaking over other people. Literary analysis has so many words for talking about these things, but I feel like part of the reason the discipline is discounted as waffle so often is because it’s difficult to show concretely (without indoctrinating people into the language) all the stuff that surrounds a text which we’re talking about. That’s what I want to see!

      • Yes, fair enough! I’m trying hard to like the kinetic typography idea but at the moment I’m afraid I can’t quite manage it – possibly because the 300 example was so, well, 300…However I’m quite willing to be convinced it’s actually a wonderful idea – but you’ll have to make a Iliad one to convince me! But to be honest, I feel like maybe a radio programme would work better, because then the difficulty of visualising wouldn’t matter…

    • Ha! Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to disagree about when it came to recounting your experience with the Italians/the Beeb/Discovery. Not sure the inscription about the (apparently stable) ménage à trois proves anything about ‘messiness’ and it was interesting that an historically reconstructed speculum passed whatever authenticity test CGI was doomed to fail – but it’s a bit pedantic to say ‘messy’ should have been defined as ‘variable’ and you never said the CGI thing wasn’t just about taste. The only thing I could really complain about was that there wasn’t much to complain about – and that no one reminded me Newnham undergrads have a habit of making one feel very underdressed and oikish to have been rained on.

      • I think the CGI business is definitely about much more than taste. CGI and re-enactment are so hard to get right. There was an awful documentary a couple of years ago about Minoan Crete, and the burial of Akrotiri, complete with CGI and re-enactment. For some reason, the people from Akrotiri were Cockney, and the Cretans equally jarring, and all the actors seemed like they were trying very hard to be noticed by a scout from EastEnders. There was also bull-leaping by scantily clad folk…. Though in accordance with modern sensibilities the Minoan women’s open fronted bodices had weird modesty panels… Completed with a Vesuvius like eruption of the volcano. This while Crete isn’t that widely known about there’s so much exciting stuff that’s ACTUALLY Minoan. Even if it might be a bit restored, there’s a difference between showing a restored artifact or room, and an entire scenario, when there’s no need to do so.
        [Sorry, long comment. I should blog about that documentary, it was hilarious. It should have been called Sir Arthur Evans’s The Palace of Minos: The Movie.]

    • It *was* suggested to Fran that she could do a documentary in the faculty library and let the Loebs speak for themselves… ;)

  2. I know it’s a shame that ancient literature doesn’t get on the telly very much, but we are pretty lucky. I was browsing through iplayer the other day (as you do…) and it struck me how many documentaries get shown on the ancient world, from Mary’s programmes and Mike Scott’s programmes all the way down to Gladiators: Death Blood and Guts (vel sim) on the History channel… not to mention dramas like Rome or Spartacus. Given the current emphasis from above about science, it’s interesting that it gets comparatively little screen time. I can think about Brian Cox and maybe Robert Winston…. and how many dramas is there about science….?
    Having said that, I watched a really good one on statistics that used effects like the kinetic typography, which just goes to show that it can be done… so maybe Homer’s time will come!

    Loved the 300 video, but not so much the OOOOHs in the middle…

    • I don’t know; to me it seems like science gets a lot of attention – all that Richard Hammond physics-of-blowing-stuff-up stuff and the masses natural world programming, which I’d call biology if I had to make it an academic discipline. (Even The Great British Bake Off has chemistry in from time to time, which is obviously the improving reason why I watch it.) I don’t think you can say that the presentation of fiction means that the academic study of fiction is well represented – TV etc. is fiction’s natural habitat; the fact that sea is full of fish doesn’t mean that a sailing holiday is an edifying experience of marine biology. What I tend to find is that history(-ish) has a practical monopoly on arts programming, with brief forays into analysis as ornamentation. If I turned on a documentary about Milton, say (just to de-Classics things), I’d expect to learn a lot about the Civil War and blindness and (maybe even) being an undergrad at Cambridge, but a lot less about iambic pentameter, Virgil, Dante, Blake etc. If you can recreate the everyday life of a Roman, or at least attempt to, I want to recreate the life of a story – not its author.

      Anyway, yeah, I think the OOOOHs were a slight misstep! They could be edited out for the final cut…

      • Yeah I suppose that’s true – I hadn’t really thought about Richard Hammond and all that stuff. Was discounting Attenborough because it’s more about ooh and cute penguins, right? [I suppose the THEY WEREN’T ACTUAL WILD POLAR BEARS?!! furore just illustrates how viewers have got used to different standards in different genres of tv.. I’d love to see outrage that THEY WEREN’T ACTUAL POMPEIANS? Hehe]
        And you’re absolutely right about programmes about literature being basically about literary history, or biography. I suppose something that combines literary theory and the nuts and bolts of writing must be quite hard to pitch. Though as I said the statistics show worked really well, I thought…

  3. *jumps down here because WordPress won’t let me reply to Hannah’s comment about CGI*

    On CGI – I’m not sure the existence of bad CGI really works as a reason to discount it completely, even if it is a pretty good reason to think around using it/the standard way of using it. It’s like a lot of techniques (a mega example being 3D technology): it gets introduced and very quickly what you get is a canonical way of using it, and that canonical way of using it becomes part of what it is. It shouldn’t have to be an all or nothing deal.

    Although that ‘documentary’ sounds hilarious.

  4. And of course I forgot to combine in my reply about David Attenborough’s penguins. Yay for the new comment thread?

    I should probably admit that I don’t really watch much of the natural world stuff. But I thought there were lots of bits about mating cycles etc. My main point of reference are all the tie-in info pages on the BBC website, which have informed me in recent weeks about fish that live at the bottom of the ocean (blobfish! it’s mostly made of water!) and the difference between venomous and poisonous creatures. And I doubt either of those would get me very far in a degree…

    I wouldn’t mind seeing the statistics show. They do some great visualising of statistics on the BBC website (which I’m starting to read like an advert for, tra la la); it’s interesting how effective moving paragraphs around the page and drawing arrows between them can be for understanding. (Although maybe I think that because I’m still trying to justify the illegibility of my undergrad lecture notes.)

  5. There was a very nice documentary on the BBC last year with Richard E. Grant talking about the Arabian Nights and its cultural impact. He spoke to scholars, and to various artists in muslim countries who still tell or illustrate or somehow relate to the story, showed pictures of the early editions, and talked a lot about his own experience of the tales while wandering around various middle eastern streets. I thought it was a good way to talk about the “life of a story” as Fran puts it.

    And don’t knock blobfish. As my comments on the octopus post should show, I love undersea creatures.

    • Ooh, that sounds good… If only for Richard E. Grant! I need to watch more of these documentaries, because I think like my reading of novels set in the ancient world, I might have given up too soon. Although I fear I might still want some lit. theory in there somewhere. But that’s just me.

  6. Recently I rewatched a BBC documentary on WH Auden ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAsmDSpjWIM ) which has an actor oscillating between performing the poems and playing the role of WH Auden (which is more obvious when the material is not poetry, but quotes from autobiographical material, interviews, etc) alongside other actors performing poems and archive footage of Auden himself speaking. As a result, the documentary blurred the boundaries quite successfully between telling the story of Auden and that of his poetry, which I guess is easier when dealing with modern poets for whom you have a lot of biographical data and with poets like Auden (or Catullus) whose poetry has a very strong confessional tone.
    Even so, although I enjoyed it, I did think there could be more about the poetry itself by having non-Auden voices, as one of the most interesting aspects of Auden is how he rewrites or even excludes his earlier poetry, thereby assimilating his earlier poetry to his later persona and its concerns. The subtitle is ‘Auden in His Own Words’, yet this exclusive use of Auden himself allows them to blend the different stages of Auden’s poetry and the various Audens into one voice, which submits too much to Auden’s own reception and reworking of his poetry. So I think there is an interesting case to be made for telling the story of the poetry there (as there would be with WB Yeats) rather than submitting to the author’s story about himself (and his work). As for actors, I think I found it okay as it was what Auden said and the actors are good… what I don’t like about actors in history programmes is that they’re often any old actors hamming it up with an unconvincing and fairly sketchy script of “the kind of things people might have said.”

    • I think I need to watch that – I like Auden every now and then, though that’s a shame that is sounds it’s very much like it’s more into authorial impressions than the wider reception and context. Did they mention the Vaughan Williams settings?

      And yeah, the hamming actors are generally to be avoided. I suppose you can’t get rid of dramatic readings wholesale for texts – otherwise you’d be stuck with the words on screen and some dodgy muzak in the background…

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