Breathing life into Pompeii

July 8, 2004


Ash fills the streets and Stephanus (Jonathan Firth) and Hedone (Inika Leigh Wright) wonder which way to turn.

Despite what doomsayers may have led you to believe, scientists predict the next ice age is 15,000 years away. But for those fretting about the possibility of a different type of natural disaster-a devastating volcanic blast -the executive producer of the documentary Pompeii: The Last Day has a less comforting message."

I don't think I'd be buying any real estate down there," jokes Michael Mosley, referring to the Campania coastline where the prosperous Roman city Pompeii once stood in the shadow of the "sleeping" volcano, Mount Vesuvius."

I think it will explode. I hope they have more time for warning signs. Based on its track record, it's very likely it will explode in the same way. That magma cell has been filling for the past 2000 years. There are plenty of leading experts who will say it will go, but what no one can say at this moment in time is when it will go."

Feeling nervous? In Yellowstone Park in North America a subterranean super-volcano, known as a caldera, is estimated to be 5000 times bigger than Vesuvius. And according to Mosley, it erupts every 600,000 years; the last one was 610,000 years ago. "When it goes, it changes the world," he reports grimly.

Such musings may seem more at home in a far-fetched Hollywood disaster film than the corridors of the esteemed BBC science unit, where Mosley, a former doctor, is director of development.

The promotional trailer on Channel Nine for Pompeii, in case you haven't seen it yet, gleefully exploits the documentary's likeness to a disaster film. A grimly compelling blend of documentary and drama, it meticulously recounts the fateful events of August 24, AD79, when Pompeii and its citizens were buried under 25 metres of volcanic ash and magma.

Though Mosley had no inkling of either Troy or The Day After Tomorrow when he started developing the project 2 years ago, he makes no secret of his intention "to grab viewers by the throat and make them realise they were in for a rollercoaster ride".

So far, the tactic has paid off, Pompeii became the highest-rating history program shown on the BBC (with 9.5 million viewers) and has found a berth on Nine rather than the ABC, the traditional home in Australia of BBC factual programs.

Mosley says he "wanted to engage people who wouldn't normally come to a science or history show. We did a survey of 4000 people (after it screened in Britain) and ... they loved the drama but they also loved the facts, learning about volcanoes and Roman life."

Pompeii is a hard-to-classify blend of period drama, science lesson and special-effects showcase. Name actors such as Tim PigottSmith (Remains of the Day), Jonathan Firth (Victoria and Albert, and brother of Colin), Jim Carter (The Madness of King George III) and Rebecca Clark (Silent Witness) portray witnesses to the Pompeii catastrophe, based on written records and skeletons found at the partially excavated site.

Like Walking with Dinosaurs, Mosley concedes that Pompeii represents a new way of making documentaries. "I was there with Tim (Haines, series producer) who had seen Jurassic Park obviously and felt it was possible to do something on a more limited budget. He said, 'We're going to do a natural history program but we're going to do it as though they were there and alive, we're not going to do it with a man and a fossil.' "

Mosley went to the international market for funding. The show "went down fantastically well in France and Germany and I suspect will do well in the US, because no one has actually done a drama about Pompeii before".

While the vulcanology angle grabbed the producer, other aspects of the story grabbed his attention, too. "It's a fantastic drama. It builds and builds, and just when you think it's over it gets worse. I loved those iconic images of the people when I went to Pompeii; I wondered who the people are and how they came to be that way, why they were engulfed, why they died. That was the mystery at the heart of it; why these people didn't get out and what it was that actually killed them."

The excavation of Pompeii began in the 1500s. When Vesuvius erupted again in the 1940s and a trickle of lava destroyed a village, the mystery re-emerged. Based on the speed of lava flow, it should have taken four days to reach Pompeii, but there was no trace of it.

"So what on earth killed these people?" Mosley asks. "If you think of a big bottle of champagne and you shake it, that's what you get inside the volcano. Magma has been forming from the earth's core for 2000 years, mixing with outside gases, and there's a plug at the top and it blows and this enormous supersonic stream of stuff shoots up. It was predicted Mount St Helens (in the US) would go vertically upwards; in fact, it exploded quite unpredictably out of the side and that's why so many people died there, they thought they were safe. It was like the overflow from a bottle of champagne, except it was 3000 degrees and travelling 120 miles per hour."

An eyewitness, the writer Pliny the Younger, "described this thing which he called the great wall of black death that swept across the sea. No one believed him, they thought it was rhetoric. But he was actually describing very accurately a pyroclastic flow (of volcanic fragments)".

Alongside classic "Simon Schama-type" documentaries, Mosley's unit is completing a four-part series about light and is developing another blockbuster documentary-drama about Yellowstone's caldera. But his dream project is a series about the four stages of time: Twenty-four hours, a lifetime, the age of the earth and the age of the universe. "I just find it awesome that you have two clocks ticking inside of you: one is the equivalent of a stopwatch, which tells you how much time is passing, and the other is an alarm clock that lets you know what time of day it is.

"They've actually isolated recently the (body's) alarm clock, which they can put in a petri dish, stick electrodes in and you can hear it tick, it discharges at a regular rate, and this is the same clock that operates on almost every living being."

Pompeii: The Last Day screens on Wednesday at 8.30pm on Channel Nine.

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