Professor Beard, who appears alongside British historians Simon Schama and David Olusoga in the series, has been replaced onscreen with a voiceover by American actor Liev Schrieber. The show following in the footsteps of Kenneth Clarke’s landmark series of the same name in 1969.
Mary Beard’s career began with a piece of cake. On a trip to the British Museum with her mother, a curator noticed her struggling to see one of the exhibits, a 3,000-year-old piece of carbonised cake from Ancient Egypt.
“He got his keys out, he opened the case, he got the bit of cake out and he showed it to me.” It was a “light-bulb moment” for the then five-year-old, and a lesson in the joy of sharing. “People will see you wanting to know something and they’ll get their keys and unlock the case.”
“Genres go through cycles and I feel a lack of confidence about the genre at the moment across British broadcasting,” argued the BBC’s history commissioner Tom McDonald.
The exec, who also commissions specialist factual and natural history shows for the BBC, praised the efforts of other broadcasters – “When Channel 4 do history they do it very well and differently to us; Channel 5 do some really fantastic history” – but he added that “the ecosystem only works if everyone is doing it.
“I don’t worry about finding the next generation of on-screen historians,” he continued.
How times have changed.
Now presenters travel across the globe to bring back stories, sometimes reflecting the dress and even the food of the era. And the long running classic documentaries with archive and voiceover, have largely given way to a rich explosion of formats from lavish reconstructions and living history to compelling personal journeys.
Black and British Season will bring content on what is means to be black and British to the BBC’s TV, online and radio outlets this November.
The season’s TV content ranges from one-off documentaries to sitcoms, airing on BBC Two and BBC Four.
A Black History of Britain will look at the long relationship between the British Isles, Africa, North America and the Caribbean.
The series will use new genetic and genealogical research alongside original records and interviews to build a new national narrative.
“This series will unveil a new type of black British history, because to me black history is everyone’s history,” said Olusoga. “It's the long, often tragic and always surprising story of Britain’s relationship with Africa and her peoples.”
Art historian Simon Schama will lead Civilisations, presenting six episodes of the ten part BBC Two series, while classicist Mary Beard will present two programmes putting the art and culture of ancient Greece and Rome into a global context, looking at early material from Iran, China and Mexico. RTS Programme Award nominee David Olusoga will present two episodes examining the relationships between Empire, military history and global cultures.