CHRISTOPHER STEEVENS reviews last night’s TV: A terrorized child, a mom-to-be… Pompeii survivors come back to live

Pompeii: Secrets Of The Dead


The North is where the Hairy Bikers Go


To bring history to life, imagination is required. Bones and stones aren’t enough — we need a spark of theatre.

Professor Bettany Hughes had that in her boatloads as she explored new discoveries and evoked destruction of a Roman town in Pompeii: Secrets Of The Dead(C5) She helped us see those familiar plaster casts of the volcano’s victims not as museum pieces, but as completely human.

The most touching of them all was a four-year-old boy who found himself in the stairwell at a grand villa.

The deluge with boiling ash from Vesuvius’ eruption in 79AD preserved his ghostly outline so well that we could see the tiny amulet around the neck.

Raksha Dave, Bettany Hughes, and John Sergeant on location for Pompeii: Secrets Of The Dead

Raksha Dave, Bettany Hughes, and John Sergeant on location for Pompeii: Secrets Of The Dead

All Prof Hughes’s maternal instincts were stirred at the sight of his toga, rucked around his waist as he struggled for air. ‘I know it’s ridiculous,’ she admitted, ‘but you almost feel guilty that you can’t help him in his suffering.’

It’s rare for a historian to bring such empathy to their work. Once we’d seen that small body as somebody’s frightened, vulnerable child, it became easier to relate to the stories behind other, more fragmented remains.

The nearby port of Herculaneum found a female skeleton that was discovered. It was the remains of a 20-year-old woman. The heat that killed her was so intense that her metal hair ornament was fused to her skull — preserving a piece of the plait beneath.

The night is tense. 

After clumsy presenter Mel Giedroyc broke Charlie’s bed last week in Handmade: Britain’s Best Woodworker (C4), the mood between them is visibly edgy and awkward. I don’t think they’ll be exchanging Christmas cards. 

The Prof convincingly argued that the young woman was one of more than 50 people who were desperate to be saved as they crowded onto harbourside. She even identified one of the rescuers — a soldier in his early 40s, with an ornate sword that revealed him as one of the emperor’s elite Praetorian naval guards.

The officer appeared to be trying lead the refugees onto the boat, likely to take them to safety aboard a warship in the harbour. But then, a cloud filled with blistering poison gases enveloped the docks.

Studying his jaw, which was missing several teeth — knocked out in battle, the Prof suggested — she wondered whether he couldn’t help whistling as he talked. ‘It’s almost as if he’s trying to tell us what he was like when he was alive,’ she said.

How extraordinary that nobody lived to tell this hero’s story — yet it emerges almost 2,000 years later, thanks to a few decayed remains and the power of imagination.

Moustachioed foodie Dave Myers brought history to life on a Northumbrian shore in The North is where the Hairy Bikers Go(BBC2).

‘Odin! Odin!’ he called, waving his arms in genuflexion, as his mate Si King barbecued beef fillets in brandy and butter flambé at the water’s edge.

The last time Odin worshippers lit fires in the sands beneath Bamburgh Castle was when they were Vikings who were on their way to pillage locals.

The only place these boys like to pillage is in the cafes and hostelries that line the coast. They keep claiming they’re on a diet but, by Thor, they can’t half put it away.

A wooden platter from a fish market was filled with lobsters, mussels and crabs, as well as salmon and squid. Si and Dave demolished it, taking turns to finish each other’s sentences through mouthfuls of seafood.

Then they complained it didn’t come with chips, and went in search of a few sacks of potatoes to fry. They built a fire in the sand to roast lamb shanks. A passing labrador came up to sniff the dog.

Dave began to urge the dog to come with them. The dog resisted, but Dave was able to keep it away. These two could enjoy a labrador side dish.