Often, television will offer you the same product at two different intellectual price points. This week, for example, you could take your Roman history in a Tesco Finest sort of way, with Simon Sebag Montefiore's three-part series for BBC4. Or you could go for the Domino's stuffed-crust- pizza version delivered by Dan Snow on BBC1 last night - Rome's Lost Empire. The former is one for those who like to think of themselves as having a connoisseur's palate for such things. The latter appears to have been made for those assumed not really to have a taste for it at all, so has been pumped up with television's favourite flavour enhancers - ersatz jeopardy and CGI magic.
That's a tiny bit harsh. I actually quite enjoyed Rome's Lost Empire and it had a lot of intriguing material in it. But if you'd trimmed the factitious narrative spicing from it, you'd have been left with a tight one-hour programme instead of the slightly sprawling one hour and 20 minutes it actually occupied. I suppose they wanted a bit of imperial scope to match the historical pomp of the subject matter, but what's baffling is how transparently bolted- on the enhancements are, and how unlikely it is that they would seduce a reluctant viewer. I'm not talking about CGI here, incidentally - few of us are immune to seeing a great work of Roman engineering magicked back into place on its original site. I'm talking about the uneasy feeling that Bonekickers is the model for their account of intellectual exploration.
Essentially, the programme involved the application of a relatively new field of archaeology - satellite surveying - to some important Roman sites. Snow travelled to locations in the ancient empire with Sarah Parcak, a satellite archaeologist, to see whether her findings could add anything to existing knowledge. Short answer? Yes. A lot. Several pick-and-trowel archaeologists appeared to be genuinely excited by what she'd spotted after hours staring at her laptop. …