Jocelyn Hay Lecture 2018: Mary Beard

Professor Beard delivered the annual Jocelyn Hay Lecture on 23rd October at the Geological Society. Her lecture, What happens to history on television?, covered a wide range of issues and celebrated the diversity of history programming currently on UK TV.

Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge, is Britain’s best known classicist. For over a decade Mary has been bringing the Romans to life through her much-loved TV programmes. Her scholarly but accessible style has made her hugely popular in print and on the screen, from Meet The Romans to her 2015 bestseller SPQR and most recently one of the authors and presenters of the BBC’s Civilisations series.

Copyright Michael Bowles

Professor Beard highlighted that her reflections were very much personal, but they raise some bigger questions of what makes a good history programme and what we’re putting history on television for. She said she didn’t believe that there is one simple answer to these questions. She wants viewers to be encouraged to ask their own questions and feel confident to do so. What can we learn from what is left behind by previous generations? How did ordinary people live?

Using a number of clips from the programmes which Mary has presented for the BBC, including Life and Death in PompeiiMeet the Romans and Julius Caesar Revealed, one principle which she stressed is that she believes good history on television needs a good argument.

She suggested that TV history often relies on a rather limited range of arguments. She said, ‘There is a tendency to privilege the big idea or the big discovery or novelty over and above the equally important but the less flashy – whether a new way of looking at the past, or the re-framing of an old question in a new template.’

The lecture was followed by a lively question and answer session.

Jocelyn Hay founded VLV in 1983 and was its inspirational leader for more than a quarter of a century. We established the Jocelyn Hay lecture series in 2012. The lecture provides an opportunity for eminent speakers to consider the importance of quality broadcasting, and particularly public service broadcasting, for citizens and consumers in the UK. Previous speakers have been Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of the NCVO, Professor Jean Seaton, Official Historian of the BBC, and Lord Puttnam.

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