Daytime TV: Fatal distraction

Gary Day finds Bettany Hughes such gripping viewing that he now needs a new bathroom

April 15, 2010

Bettany Hughes should not be allowed on television. She's just too good. Good on her subject, good at presenting it and good-looking. Not that that matters, especially if you are a woman, but it is the final blow to those whose blemishes may be covered by the make-up artists but not their vacuity.

The viewer beholds Bettany and asks, "Was this the face that launched a thousand thoughts?" A dangerous talent in a democracy like ours. Television is there to lull, to distract, to chastise the underclass and, perhaps, to help us cook a little better or to improve our properties. It is certainly not there to make us think or, Peter Mandelson forbid, to make us appreciate the classical past.

Why on earth do we need to know anything about ancient Crete? The Minoan civilisation disappeared about 1,500 years before Christ was born. And he didn't seem to think it was that important. He didn't say, "Thou shalt commit to memory the floor plan of the palace of Knossos," nor, as far as I recall, did King Minos merit a mention in the sermon on the Mount.

No, Bettany needs to be banned from the box. Her programmes have a bad effect. They make you stop whatever you are doing and watch them. This can have devastating consequences if you are running a bath and your loved one shouts, "The Spartans has just started." Not wanting to miss a word you rush downstairs, forgetting to turn off the taps as you race to get the most comfortable spot on the sofa. The one right underneath the bathroom.

The last thing I remember before waking up in hospital is Bettany saying, "Unlike the Athenians, the Spartans were famous for not writing about themselves." Education comes at a price. That of a new bathroom in fact. Still, if you wanted to defend her, you could at least argue that she was providing employment for plumbers and plasterers.

But, in the end, that carries no weight. Bettany is a siren. She thinks we should learn about the past. About fertility rites for instance. What for? We don't need them. We've got Sainsbury's. Stories about snake goddesses or young men somersaulting over the backs of charging bulls whose hoof-prints were the size of a man's head, are just a distraction from the real business of life, which is ... which is ...

That's the trouble with Bettany. She makes you forget what's truly important. Take The Minoans (More4, Wednesday 7 April, 9pm). Sumptuously shot, it was a fascinating and utterly absorbing account of Europe's first civilisation. What a wonder archaeology is. A shard of pottery opens a path into the past.

Bettany floated into view like Venus emerging from the sea to tell us dark tales of "love and sex, blood and gore". An actor with a bull's head snorted steam in an underground cave and made menacing gestures (or they may have been desperate signals for someone to come and help him get his costume off, which did look uncomfortably tight).

Like many a child of a straying royal, the minotaur had to be kept hidden from public view. Well, how do you explain his horns? As for the lion's teeth, even Minos' erring wife had no idea where they came from. Try as she might, Pasiphae couldn't remember anyone like that.

To prevent awkward questions, she ordered Daedalus, "the master builder of the Bronze Age", to construct a labyrinth in which to confine the result of her adultery. It wasn't much of a life, as you can imagine. And it was cut short by Theseus, who objected to the Minotaur's taste for Athenian youth.

Bettany, who spent a lot of time puttering round the island on a scooter, declared that this "cock and bull story" was probably a garbled version of the conquest of Crete by the Mycenaens. She pointed to a tomb. It was Greek and spoke of a warrior culture quite different from the Minoan way of life.

They were artists and craftsmen whose pots and jewellery had a surprisingly art deco look, and they were also traders specialising in luxury goods. They were the first to produce the colour purple by extracting the mucus of the murex snail, which they apparently factory farmed.

But this largely peaceful and even republican society had its dark side, human sacrifice. An earthquake swallowed a priest and victims in mid act, the rope still visible round the wrist bones of a young boy. This is why Bettany must be banished. She reminds us of the complexity of any society, an idea that can lead only to confusion in our transparent, target-driven culture. Oh yes, and she also reminds us of where we came from and what we've lost. Baggage we don't need if we are to travel light.

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