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Cleopatra: A Timewatch Guide

Cleopatra: A Timewatch Guide was on BBC4 back in February as part of a short run of programmes cobbled together from old Timewatch footage interspersed with some narration by a current presenter (and modern footage of talking heads) tying it all together. The presenter in this case was Vanessa Collinridge, who I’d not seen present anything before (which is a shame for her, as I’m judging her based on this …). The other two that we watched were The Mary Rose: A Timewatch Guide (presented by Dan Snow) and Roman Britain: A Timewatch Guide (presented by Alice Roberts).

Sadly, as you might’ve guessed from the preceding paragraph, I wasn’t much impressed with this programme on Cleopatra. The idea, I think, was to look back through the Timewatch archives and tell a story about how our ideas about Cleopatra have changed over the last five or six decades. The other two programmes had it relatively easy – the Mary Rose has a coherent narrative (discovery -> excavation -> raising the ship -> research on what’s been found), and the Roman Britain one could draw on discoveries like the Vindolanda letters to show how changing archaeological technology has given us more information about the average Roman (etc). But for Cleopatra there was not only no real structure to the story, but also no real insights. Views of Cleopatra have changed over the years because our society has changed over the years, not because of new evidence or re-evaluation of old evidence. The main theme was “but we don’t know, and likely never will”; which is likely enough true but it’s extremely unsatisfying TV when unaccompanied by “but here’s a good guess”. And I kinda hate myself for writing that sentence, given how much I rail against over-certainty in history/archaeology television, but this was way too far the other way. The programme just felt wishy-washy and when we’d finished watching it we were left wondering what the point was.

Other irritations concerned both some of the subject matter, and the footage of Collinridge. Taking the latter first – I could see that they wanted the presenter looking dynamic, and so in all three programmes the presenter walked through a museum while talking on camera. Dan Snow walked through the Mary Rose museum, Alice Roberts walked through Roman ruins (or Roman stuff in a museum) and Vanessa Collinridge walked through Manchester Museum. Now Manchester Museum has a lot of Egyptian stuff (even if not terribly Cleopatra related) so it might’ve been a good choice for relatively relevant background scenery. Except she was mostly filmed walking through completely random bits of the museum, including the stuffed animal sections of it and such like. So it was just a bit distracting.

In terms of the content – I can see they needed to cover the “was Cleopatra black?” discussion, as it’s been a part of thought on Cleopatra in the time period the programme was about. But I feel like the whole question is more about modern racial politics than Cleopatra herself. The theory takes a very modern US-based concept of race, and then clutches at holes in the historical record (like the fact that we don’t know who one of her grandmothers was) to say “ahha! she might’ve been black as we define it!”. This is then converted into a “fact” and used to make a modern political point. And it doesn’t seem relevant to Cleopatra – it’s probable that she cared more about how Greek she was than whether or not one grandmother might’ve had sub-Saharan African ancestry.

I wouldn’t recommend this programme, although the other two were worth a watch.