If you've gotten past the Murdoch merry-go-round that has dominated newspaper front pages for the past few weeks, you'll likely have come across the kerfuffle about Mary Beard's new TV show, Meet the Romans, and, more specifically, TV critic AA Gill's mean-spirited comments about its host. And now, Ms. Samantha Brick, the self-proclaimed beauty who told This Morning host Eamonn Holmes that the majority of men find her irresistible, has laid another stone in the wall that would keep women who aren't eligible for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue out of TV land. I've long been a fan of Beard's exemplary blog, A Don's Life, which imparts timeless lessons about classicism in a wise, accessible, highly relevant fashion. The Cambridge academic proves time and again that the ancient world need not be confined within the boring pages of general history textbooks, and displays an invigorating passion for her favorite topics that has brought them to a wide new audience.
So it is with regret that I stumbled across the harsh words of Gill, who slammed Beard's new show not because it was boring or because her historiography was off (neither of which would be a valid charge) but because, in his opinion, Beard is not physically attractive enough for mainstream television. And now, Brick, who believes that 'savvy' would-be TV presenters who realise that all-looks-little-talent is the order of the day 'fix' themselves with long workout sessions, makeovers and even cosmetic surgery, has thrown her two cents worth in. Doubtless she has some knowledge of the harsh realities of TV production, but to defend and even extol such a position? Baffling.
I'm not exactly sure what Mr. Gill or Ms. Brick expect from a TV show that is about ancient Rome. Bikinis? Reality TV-style manufactured drama? Keeping up With the Kardashians popcorn vapidity? Surely the topic of the show largely dictates its content, and, in this case, makes it clear that learning (heaven forbid!) is the order of the day, and not titillation. The brief for the host of such a program? Make history accessible. Check. Reveal new information. Check. Display the afore-mentioned gusto for the subject. Check. Mary Beard should not be evaluated beyond these criteria.
I have long feared that most people don't want to watch TV to learn, but rather to receive their daily dose of scandal, gossip, sports stats, and, if they want to be really daring, politically polarised polemic - combined, the true opiate of the masses. AA Gill's ill-conceived words only further this assumption.
In closing, I leave you with the ever-pertinent words of iconic American journalist Edward R. Murrow, when he contemplated those who dismiss the notion that people can seek, or even stomach, serious, thoughtful TV programming [go to 2:20 in this clip to see David Strathairn's masterful version from the George Clooney-helmed film Good Night and Good Luck]:
"Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost. This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. Good night, and good luck."
Philip White is the author of Churchill's Cold War, published by Duckworth on 26th May, £20 HB