Tuesday, May 21, 2019


Fiona Hobden, Amanda Wrigley (ed.), Ancient Greece on British Television. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018. Pp. 272. ISBN 9781474412599. £75.00.

Reviewed by Lisa Maurice, Bar-Ilan University (lisa.maurice@biu.ac.il)

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview
[Authors and titles are listed below.]

This edited collection by Fiona Hobden and Amanda Wrigley provides a welcome addition to Edinburgh University Press' Screening Antiquity series and, more widely, to research into the reception of the ancient world on screen. Its focus is ground breaking in three ways: firstly, it is concerned with Greece rather than Rome; secondly, it examines television (and on occasion, radio) rather than film; and thirdly, it concentrates on Britain rather than the United States. With regard to the first aspect, it builds upon work by Alastair Blanshard and Kim Shahabudin, and in particular by Gideon Nisbet.1 As concerns television, works by Arthur Pomeroy, and more recently Monica Cyrino and Antony Agoustakis, have turned the spotlight on the small screen.2 The present work is the first in-depth study of the British (or more frequently English) screen reception of the ancient world, and as such it is to be welcomed. No such work can ever be close to being exhaustive, and the editors make no claims to such an achievement. The range of genres and works examined, however, provide an admirable start for research into a hitherto somewhat neglected field.

The book consists of an introductory chapter by the editors, in which they set out their aims and objectives. Beginning with a case study of the 1965 BBC adaptation of Plato's Symposium, through which they highlight some of the themes picked up throughout the book, they discuss the particular emphases of their research, and provide a short survey of the reception of antiquity in British popular culture. This introduction is then followed by ten chapters covering documentary, sci-fi and fantasy, tragedy, including one chapter on radio. Each chapter concentrates on specific case-studies that highlight the different genres, combining "close analysis of individual television programmes, production contexts and (where possible) audience engagement" (2). Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.

Chapter one, Fiona Hobden's contribution on television documentaries, focuses on a number of productions, from the BBC's Armchair Voyage: Hellenic Cruise (1958) to Treasures of Ancient Greece (2015), but the main thrust of the chapter is not so much the genre itself, as an examination of documentary as a means through which to discuss the constantly fluctuating understanding of the 'legacy' of the Greeks, as applied to modern Britain. She argues persuasively that while the question of "are we the Greeks?" (38) has a range of different answers, a strong and direct connection between ancient Greece and modern Britain is nevertheless never denied, and indeed at the core of such programmes. Peter Golphin's chapter, following on from Hobden's, examines this connection in a different manner, discussing, in one of the strongest pieces in the book, Louis MacNeice's utilization of ancient Greece in radio productions broadcast between 1941 and 1944, for anti-fascist propaganda purposes during the Second World War. With John Wyver's contribution, the book moves back again to documentaries, and indeed back once more even to the same production in the shape of Hellenic Cruise, here contrasted with The Glory That was Greece (BBC, 1959). Wyver's focus is slightly different from Hobden's, arguing that these programmes were the natural development of tourism and education, as they spread into the new democratising medium of television. Nevertheless, more cohesion might have been provided by placing the two chapters consecutively, and indeed, by providing more cross-referencing between them, especially since The Glory That was Greece would seem to fit very well into Hobden's thesis.

The next three chapters turn the spotlight on Greek tragedy, starting with Amanda Wrigley's chapter on adaptations of the genre for teenagers on Schools Television in the early 1960s. This is a little studied area, and Wrigley's contribution provides a welcome and fascinating insight into the differing ideologies of the BBC and independent television with regard to both television and education at this time. Through her demonstration that tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were watched mainly by teens in the less academically focused secondary modern schools, Wrigley again highlights the democratizing nature of television, in this case directed at a younger audience. Tony Keen's piece on a specific production of Greek tragedy for the small screen, The Serpent Son (1979), which was a BBC adaptation of Aeschylus' Oresteia, draw attention to a very different approach to contemporary Athenian drama, namely the science-fiction aesthetic elements in this three-episode series. These aspects, inspired by the archaeology of Minoan Crete, were influenced by a desire to be experimental and to present a primitive and exotic view of ancient Greece that contrasts sharply, as Keen demonstrates, with traditional representations of the classical world. Visual aesthetics remain the focus in the next chapter by Lynn Fotheringham, who examines Don Taylor's televised productions of Sophocles' Oedipus cycle and Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis from 1986 and 1990 respectively. These adaptations were the last Greek tragedies to appear on British television for almost two and a half decades, and, like The Serpent Son, consciously attempted to distance the genre from its customary methods of staging. In this case, the impetus was a socialist agenda on the part of the working-class born director, whose desire to make classical drama accessible to general audiences led him to reject realism in place of stylized timelessness. Although the reactions of viewers were very mixed, as Fotheringham outlines, nevertheless, he did achieve his aim of engaging with the mass audience to whom he was attempting to introduce Greek tragedy in a meaningful manner.

In the following two chapters, the focus shifts again, this time to fantasy and science-fiction. Sarah Miles looks at two different television receptions of Odysseus presented for children in the mid-1980s, Ulysses 31 and Odysseus: The Greatest Hero of Them All, both screened by newly launched Children's BBC in 1985-86. As Miles explains, although each treated the Homeric sources differently, with the former utilizing popular film and Japanese animation, and the latter contemporizing the tale with humour, colloquial language and Anglicised settings, both were careful to maintain close connection with the original myth, and both were creative and innovative receptions that introduced younger viewers to the mythological hero. Amanda Potter, in the following chapter, provides a wide-ranging survey of the use of Greek myth in Doctor Who and its spinoffs, The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood. Although Greece has featured less obviously than Rome in these productions, it does appear in the form of historical setting for some episodes, such as 'The myth makers', series from 1965. It also provides a framework for the alien encounters that occur throughout, which recall the battles against monsters and foreign threats that permeate Greek mythology. Potter's illuminating chapter traces the changing use of myth over the entire period, up to and including the present day, which has seen an upsurge in the popularity of classical myth in popular culture.

The final chapter in the book that utilises traditional format, by Anna Foka, ties together the earlier and later chapters, by examining a subject that combines both fantasy and documentary, namely a 2010 Timewatch episode about the mythical Atlantis, 'Atlantis: The Evidence', identified in the production with bronze age Thera. Foka's emphasis in this piece is on the use of digital technology that is utilized along with archaeological evidence, in order to 'legitimise fiction as fact' (198), and validate the premise of the programme. Through so doing, as she highlights, the episode provides a potent illustration of the evolution of the historical documentary as cultural form, and the power of digital tools in contemporary television. Remaining with documentary, an interview conducted by Fiona Hobbs with ancient historian, Michael Scott and documentary director and producer, David Wilson, rounds off the book. This provides a welcome and lively finish that gives a very valuable insight into the practical considerations that govern such productions, as well as some of the ethical and ideological dilemmas behind decisions made in the process.

Overall, this is a fascinating collection of articles on a hitherto under-examined field of research, which opens up a number of questions and paves the way for further study. Well-produced, and with illustrations illuminating each chapter, its accessible language makes it of equal use to undergraduates, graduate students, professional academics and even interested laymen. Some clearer signposting, with division of the book into sections, perhaps according to genre, might have made the connections between the chapters clearer; and a closing chapter by the editors, drawing out these connections and conclusions, would have been welcome. Such a comment is, however, no more than a desire for more from a well-produced volume that left me both excited and deeply enriched by its content.

Table of Contents

Fiona Hobden and Amanda Wrigley. Broadcasting Greece: An Introduction to Greek Antiquity on the Small Screen.
1. Fiona Hobden, Are We the Greeks? Understanding Antiquity and Ourselves in Television Documentaries.
2. Peter Golphin, Louis MacNeice and 'The Paragons of Hellas': Ancient Greece as Radio Propaganda.
3. John Wyver, The Beginnings of Civilisation: Television Travels to Greece with Mortimer Wheeler and Compton Mackenzie.
4. Amanda Wrigley, Tragedy for Teens: Ancient Greek Tragedy on BBC and ITV School Television in the 1960s.
5. Tony Keen, The Serpent Son (1979): A Science Fiction Aesthetic?
6. Lynn Fotheringham, Don Taylor, the 'old-fashioned populist'? The Theban Plays (1986) and Iphigenia at Aulis (1990): Production Choices and Audience Responses.
7. Sarah Miles, The Odyssey in the 'Broom Cupboard': Ulysses 31 and Odysseus: The Greatest Hero of them All on 'Children's BBC', 1985-6.
8. Amanda Potter, Greek Myth in the Whoniverse.
9. Anna Foka, The Digital Aesthetic in Atlantis: The Evidence (2010).
10. Fiona Hobden, Greece in the Making: From Intention to Practicalities in Television Documentaries. A Conversation with Michael Scott and David Wilson.


1.   Alastair J. L. Blanshard and Kim Shahabudin, Classics on Screen: Ancient Greece and Rome on Film. London, UK: Bristol Classical Press, 2011; Gideon Nisbet, Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture. Revised and Expanded Edition. Exeter: Bristol Phoenix Press, 2008.
2.   Arthur Pomeroy, Then it was Destroyed by the Volcano: the Ancient World in Film and Television. London: Duckworth, 2008; Monica Cyrino, Rome, Season One: History Makes Television. Malden, MA – Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008, Rome, Season Two: Trial and Triumph. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015; Monica Cyrino and Antony Augoustakis, STARZ Spartacus: Reimagining an Icon on Screen. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

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