Are We the Greeks? Understanding Antiquity and Ourselves in Television Documentaries

Hobden, Fiona (2018). Are We the Greeks? Understanding Antiquity and Ourselves in Television Documentaries. In: Hobden, Fiona and Wrigley, Amanda eds. Ancient Greece on British Television. Screening Antiquity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 24–43.



Standing on the deck of a cruise ship destined for Greece, Sir John Wolfenden, a prominent educationalist and guest speaker on the tour, is asked by the well-known archaeologist and presenter of Armchair Voyage: Hellenic Cruise (BBC, 1958; henceforth Hellenic Cruise), Sir Mortimer Wheeler, to explain the ‘extraordinary pull’ of Greece today. After considering the natural landscape and the buildings and statues the ancient Greeks left behind, Wolfenden turns to the political and cultural inheritance. These, he asserts, are the basis of modern civilisation in the West. Wheeler appears unconvinced, and yet, as the ship travels on to Olympia and footage of the ruined sanctuary appears on screen, he observes, ‘the newcomer most readily finds contact with that sense of beauty and humanity that are the basic contributions of Greece to the modern world’. Wolfenden's proposition is sustained. Hellenic Cruise, the first British television documentary to engage with ancient Greece at the time of broadcast, establishes the relationship between the Hellenic past and Western present as one of inheritance. In this, the programme was far from unique. For example, in 1821 the English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote passionately that ‘We are all Greeks – our laws, our literature, our religion and our art have their root in Greece’, when attempting to encourage his British compatriots to support the Greek struggle for independence from Turkish rule.

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