Not the X Factor

15th September 2006 at 01:00
The stage was never going to be Nero's platform, but was he as bad as he has been made out to be?

Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire

BBC1, Thursday, September 21, 9-10pm

Imperial Rome has an enduring fascination and seems to provide an endless source of material for television, from the dramatisation of I, Claudius to the travelogue style of Tony Robinson's Romans. Perhaps surprisingly, the latter, broadcast last month on the Discovery Civilisation channel, turned out to be a fine series: Robinson gives a straighforward account of the careers of Julius Caesar and the rest of the gang, at the same time adding just enough colour to the stories to persuade you that they are worth re-examining and might even be relevant to our own concerns. This was good television history, likely to get an early repeat.

In contrast to the one-man-and-some-ruins formula of the Robinson films, the BBC's batch of five historical dramas The Rise and Fall of an Empire leans more towards the Cecil B DeMille school of historical enquiry, and (according to the press release) got through more than 200 metal or rubber swords and 20 litres of artificial blood.

We start, for some reason, with Nero, returning later to Julius Caesar and Tiberius Gracchus, then going on to Constantine and the fall of the Empire.

Nero (played by Michael Sheen) is a fascinating character, with his populist leanings and his artistic ambitions. The film starts by dismissing the nonsense about the emperor fiddling while Rome burned, and concentrates on his over-ambitious plans to rebuild the city, together with his attempt to establish a reputation as a stage performer.

The second of these ambitions was felt to be utterly demeaning in an aristocrat by the historians who recorded Nero's reign, so we shall never have an answer to the most interesting question of all: was he any good? Did a great artist really die with him, as he apparently claimed? Not if we are to believe Sheen, whose version of Nero the singer wouldn't last 20 seconds on The X Factor. But the series at least succeeds in getting you to ask the questions.

Reader, I Married Him

BBC4, Monday, September 18, 9-10pm

The triumphant conclusion to Charlotte Bront 's Jane Eyre provides a suitable title for this three-part analysis of romantic fiction. Yes, Jane got her happy ending but, by heaven, did she have to work hard for it.

Daisy Goodwin looks at the genre, starting with its least romantic side, and finds that where there's love, there's brass: the leading romance publisher Mills Boon sells a book every two seconds and this kind of literature accounts for 40 per cent of all paperback fiction. It is a genre particularly associated with women, both as readers and writers (Goodwin points out that when male authors such as Tony Parsons write about relationships, their work is classified as "literary fiction", not "romance").

Why is it so popular? Perhaps it does you good. Scientific research has investigated the effect of a really romantic love story on stress hormones.

Or, if that predictable happy ending doesn't relieve stress in other ways, it could always send you to sleep.

A Brief History of Infinity

BBC World Service, from Wednesday, September 20, 9.05-9.30am

The mind shrinks from the contemplation of infinity; some concepts are just too big to handle. Astronomer Heather Couper takes a two-part tour through the idea of the infinite, looking at the oldest and the latest theories on what is meant by the concept, as well as some of the terms we use to express other, very, very large numbers. The idea of an ultimate large number is itself paradoxical: one can easily show that there must be something bigger than infinity, even though it must also, by definition, be the biggest thing there could be. So, if you want to think bigI

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