“So many people were killed to make Nero Emperor, it was kind of his destiny. He couldn’t opt out of it.” – Author Margaret George discusses The Confessions of Young Nero

“I’ve known a lot of Neros in my life, maybe I’m sort of a Nero too because I was lucky that I could write novels and make a living as an artist, but so few people can.”

WHAT: A mother’s deadly ambitions. A boy who would be sovereign. A name that would be infamous. This is the epic tale of Nero’s rise to power, a thrilling story of survival, betrayal, love, and the struggle for the Roman empire that would change history.”

WHO: Margaret George writes biographical novels about outsized historical characters: Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene, Helen of Troy, and Elizabeth I. Her latest subject is covered in ‘The Confessions of Young Nero’ and ‘The Splendour Before The Dark’. Her novels have been ‘New York Times’ bestsellers, and the Cleopatra novel was made into an Emmy-nominated ABC-TV miniseries.

Margaret especially enjoys the research she has done for the novels, such as racing in an ancient Greek stadium, attending a gladiator training school in Rome, and studying the pharmacology of snake poison.

MORE? Here!


Why Nero?

Why Nero, well it’s because I think of all the Roman emperors, he seems more like a person that you know. He seemed very modern. He reminded me of so many people I know personally who want to be artists. How many people do you know like that? Children, they want to go to film school, they want to become playwrights, they want to write novels, they want to play music and their parents say “No, I really think you’d better go to law school”.

So he was very modern in that way. It just happened that the law school his parent wanted him to go to was being the Emperor. That’s not something you can refuse by saying, “Well I don’t care to go to law school, I don’t want to be a doctor.” When that happens, most parents usually say, “alright then you go off to New York and if you don’t make it in five years, you’re going to come crawling back and we’ll see about law school.”

In this case, so many people were killed to make Nero Emperor, it was kind of his destiny. He couldn’t opt out of it. I felt that was what really made him so interesting to me. It made his character alive in a way that say, Septimius Severus or even Julius Caesar or any of those people, they didn’t have that other side. That is where I got the idea of the three Neros from. The Augustus one that did his duty, the artist in him and, last of all, the third one that had to facilitate the other two.

I felt as if I’d known Neros – I’ve known a lot of Neros in my life, maybe I’m sort of a Nero too because I was lucky that I could write novels and make a living as an artist, but so few people can.

Of course, this was a real life story so it wasn’t up to me to come up with a plot for the sequel that was as good as the first one because history has provided me with that plot. It was a tragedy, of course, I notice that I seem to be drawn to tragic figures because when I think about it, so Mary Queen of Scots was executed, Cleopatra and Nero committed suicide, Helen of Troy caused a war where lots of people got killed and I just seem to be drawn to this, ‘cos life is sad even if you’re an emperor.

I like to do novels that really do have a whole life. I think that you can’t understand the adult until you’ve met their younger self. The modern thing is to do just a slice of the life. When I started out I wanted to do Henry VIII. At the time most of the books and plays just spoke a sort of small part, usually the Anne Boleyn part and / or the Thomas More part – but I thought, “well you can’t understand those out of context, you have to know the person, how he grew up, what formed him, you can’t just leap into the middle of his life.” That’s what people do now, because of space, I think, which is understandable, but I think you wouldn’t know the grown-up Nero until you knew the child.

How did you find writing the story in the shadow of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius novels?

One thing I am thankful for though is that ‘I, Claudius’ is told from Claudius’ point of view. Thank goodness Robert Graves didn’t get to do too much about Nero, because I find myself, especially from a mini-series, I just can’t get out of my mind, you know, the images I have of those people that played those roles, I mean you know Livia will always be Siân Phillips and of course Caligula will always be John Hurt.

Had there been a continuation with a grown-up Nero, I would certainly have had trouble in battling that image in my mind.

[DL: It’s interesting that neither you or Robert Graves haven’t got very much nice to say about Seneca.]

Neither of us do, do we? That’s funny. You know there’s such a difference of opinion about Seneca. He’s kind of a mystery. It’s the old problem – stay within an institution and try to improve it, work from within and do what you can, don’t desert the field; or do you quit like Thomas Moore and say, “I just can’t have anything to do with this.” Seneca chose the first one, though he’s criticised a lot for that. Was he really part of a conspiracy plot or not? You can make a case for the fact that he tried, he didn’t desert. But you can also make a case that he stayed because he was getting so fabulously rich.

Is rehabilitating the reputation of Nero the ultimate act of iconoclasm?

I found that people are the most resistant to rehabilitating Nero. More so than they were to Henry VIII, which is kind of surprising because Henry was so much closer to modern times.

I do think that what I found in some of the reviews, and some of the comments, are that people really prefer the villain. I have a friend who’s trying to rehabilitate Richard III, but it’s really hard because that colourful kind of villain is so attractive. Even in my Mary Magdalene book, Maureen Dowd in the ‘New York Times’ said that we prefer the golden-haired prostitute because she’s so visual, she’s so easy to identify. The disciple is not as interesting.

I’m glad I did it but I think I was a little naïve in thinking that I could change many people’s thoughts about Nero. I have to say I can see now how entrenched these ideas are about, him. They recently did a programme, a kind of rehabilitation, it was called ‘The Nero Files’ and I braced myself. It was about a forensic scientist who examines the case against Nero and what came out was that he didn’t do a lot of these things and we can prove it by this, that and the other. I wish a lot of people had watched it, I hope they did.

[DL: There is, of course, one crime that Nero’s associated with which is his kicking to death of his Empress Poppaea and her unborn child. She is perhaps the most famous victim of domestic abuse in history…]

But they don’t think that happened. I decided that even if it wasn’t really true, it was so much in the popular mind that there had to be a version of it that involved him and in effect he caused it by an accident. I couldn’t just get away with the modern view that she was ill and she had had a miscarriage – which was what my editor wanted me to do. I said, “no” because you have to answer the criticism. I did feel that the only way to answer it, without being accused of just dodging the whole thing, was to have it happen but have it not being a central thing.

I say in my author’s afterword that Nero was not known to personally do physical things against people. So it’s a bit out of character. Plus he loved her very much. There’s even a papyrus, a poem written in Egypt afterwards, about Nero and Poppaea and their love. If he went around striking people, I could say okay, but there’s no other evidence. That’s one of the problems of being a historical novelist, a real historian can say here are the theories: one, two, three, four and he can put them all out. But, if you’re writing a novel and it has to be consistent, you can only choose one, just one, not one you call ‘a’ and one you call ‘b’. So, that’s the way I handled it.

As for the fire in Rome and the one thing that you really can’t get away with, his killing Agrippina. I mean that’s the thing that, you know, you know it happened. The only way you can handle that is, as I say, to ask what were the reasons for it?

Do you have a role in selecting the narrators of the audiobook editions of your novels?

Long, long ago when they still had cassette tapes, remember? I would be driving my daughter to school, college and it was a two-day drive and so we would go to the library and get all these tapes but we always had to preview them because if we didn’t like the sound of the narrator we knew we couldn’t stand listening to it. It would take up room in the car, because we had to bring it back to turn back into the library. That’s really where I got the idea that you’ve got to preview these things. Sometimes the narrator just isn’t right.

After a certain point in my publishing career, I got the rights to select the readers and that makes such a difference. If someone doesn’t sound like Nero or doesn’t sound like what I think he sounds like, I think that it just won’t capture the spirit of the book.

[DL: Why was Susan Denaker, the reader for the poisoner Locusta, so noticeably an American? Steve West, the reader for Nero, only once gives his new-found Americanness away with his pronunciation of ‘herbs’.]

I think it’s because I really wanted the main characters to be British – because everybody knows that the ancient Romans spoke with British accents. I think she just sounded like an older kind of canny woman, the other two readers, they had sounded either really spacey or weird or else way too prissy to be like Locusta was, really this kind of wise, I think it was older but very level headed and practical kind of person so I hope it wasn’t too jarring that she had a different accent.

Since Peter Ustinov is unavailable, who would you cast to play your Nero?

People think of Nero as so much older. Every time I give a talk and I say, “you know he didn’t live – he died when he was 30”, people are shocked. They have no idea. I’d like the young Robert Redford, but the current actor I came up with is Joe Alwyn. He’s 28, he looks like the young Nero, and of course, he’s British so he has the right accent. I thought it was brilliant Zeffirelli casting ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with actual teenagers. You get these older actors playing these teenaged parts. Since the death of Luke Perry, there’s been a lot of stuff about ‘90210’. The actors playing those parts of teenagers were not teenagers. One woman was 30 and Luke Perry himself was 26 so I think that if you really want to get the real Nero, you better ask an actor who is that age and so Joe Alwyn is my choice and I hope he is available! If he’s not taken up with Taylor Swift! But yeah I think he’ll be perfect but we’ve got to do it right away or he’ll soon be too old.

[DL: Is there anything in the works to bring the novels to the screen?]

No not yet. I do have an agent in Hollywood who is working very hard to find a way of bringing it to the screen because you know the streaming services, like Amazon of course and Netflix and now Apple is going to get into the mix, they are budgeting huge, billions of dollars, to bring out new series. So I’m hoping that in this climate that there will be an interest in this because of course, a mini-series is so much more than a two-hour movie. I don’t see how you could get Nero into a 2-hour movie but you know we’ll see what happens. It’s a good time for these things.

Did Nero’s rule produce any lasting achievements?

That was also a good question. I’m not trying to dodge this, I’m just framing it a little bit, whether anybody has real lasting achievements. It’s very rare because often the person’s accomplishments, at least within a couple of centuries, get superseded or wiped out. Nero had great diplomatic success with that dream of peace with Parthia. That lasted 50 years.

Longer term, I would say the beginning of urban planning. He was the first one because he had to after the fire of Rome. He had a clean slate so he did put in the urban plan the green spaces. The new streets had to be a certain width. They had to have fire fighting equipment and the walls had to be at least a yard apart no more common walls, and you had to build on a certain kind of stone that was much less susceptible to fire damage. Of course, these weren’t popular but he could mandate them because he was the emperor. We accept this now. Of course, you must have city planning.

I just got a new copy of ‘National Geographic’, I was reading it last night. They have a whole issue on cities and planning cities – what the Chinese did wrong in the last 30 years and Los Angeles did wrong in the last 15 years. How do you shape urban spaces in cities? How do we learn from past mistakes so that we have pleasant places to live? I’d say that urban planning is Nero’s one legacy which he would be very surprised about. I think he was proud of it but it kind of came to him by accident because of the fire. It’s not that he set out saying, “I think I will redesign a city.” He was too focused on a different kind of art.

I would also say maybe preparing the way for Hadrian was an accomplishment. Nero is a bit ahead of his time. Later, Hadrian could grow a beard and he could be a Grecophile and he could be gay, be all kinds of things that Nero did and was pilloried for.

If you could possess any one item associated with Nero, what would you have?

I would like to have his very own cithara, I could have thrown it in some kind of shrine because we don’t have any left and it was a very difficult virtuoso instrument to master. I’ve seen the statues of Apollo holding it and that way it’s like 3D and you can walk around it and see how big and boxy and bulky it was but I’d like to see the real thing.

I do have some things from Nero’s time, I have coins which I have collected and I do have some jewellery from that era that is wearable. That I love having ‘cos I think someone wore it when Nero was emperor. I have learnt so much about history through my coin collecting. I did it with Cleopatra too.

So if you could ask Nero any question what would it be?

I assume by your question that that means he’d have a retrospective vision. Because if he knows what’s happened since I would say I would ask him for an honest appraisal of his art.

Would he make the same choices knowing how posterity has painted him? He would have to know how posterity painted him, I suppose if it was when he was alive, I would still ask him toward the end of his life, you know because I have him in the book saying, “Do I care enough to throw everything over for my art?” At the very end, when I say do you think – if you can go back and do it all over again, will you throw everything over for your art?

You’ve got a one way ticket to the Roman Empire for you and your family, you’re not coming back, when and where are you taking them?

I’m never coming back? Then I would go to England at the time when Hadrian was building his wall, and it’s okay for me to stay there because my ancestors were all there. That’s one reason I want to go, seriously, but the whole thing about the Roman Empire in Britain fascinates me. It’s odd even that Britain ever was in the Roman Empire, it was for 400 years so it’s a bit like the EU. Were they ever really and truly in their hearts part of it? What was it like to be living there then?

I’d like to see Roman Britain kind of at its height. I want to live in one of those heated villas and that’s why it’s a mythological place almost, that whole time. I remember my father saying years and years ago when I was writing Henry, he said you know you want to do a novel about the end of the Roman Empire in Britain because they just upped and left and it must have been very strange to have this suddenly happen for both sides. Of course, I would go earlier when things were just getting underway. So that’s what I would do but I better take some warm clothes.

You’ve got a solo return ticket for either a year on campaign with Julius Caesar; a fortnight with Hadrian and his entourage at Tivoli; or a day in the library of Alexandria. Which do you pick?

I wouldn’t take the library because I said I’ve spent so much time in libraries, I’m sure I’d have a great time with Hadrian and his entourage but I would choose the Julius Caesar campaign. Now I hope, because I’m being magically transported back in time, I hope this would also mean that I could keep up with the campaign and it wouldn’t be me as I am now. I would go as a ramped up version of myself. I got very fascinated by Caesar when I saw him through Cleopatra’s eyes when I was writing about them. You know he’s such an extraordinary character and I care about what a genius he was with his campaigns and also in one particular, he was easy going in a way, in the sense that he was tolerant of his soldiers. When some of them ran away, he grabbed them by the shoulders, turned them around and said, “the enemy is this way.” He didn’t kill them, he was quite, you know, unique and I would just like to watch him in action.

Also, it’s the beginning of Europe too, you really kind of think about the Roman Empire in a time when Europe was all wild and you know when Augustus, that is Octavian and Antony, split up the Roman Empire? Well, Octavian got the bad part, he got Europe, it was still very wild. Antony got the rich part, the Eastern part. So, the beginning of Europe with Caesar, I would take that.

What are you working on now, what’s next for you?

Well, I’m really thinking about, I would love to stay in the ancient world and as I said I really have a draw to Britain and Roman Empire Britain. I think I would like to stay in the ancient world and I haven’t quite decided you know, who is calling. I kind of get called by these characters and I’ve got some, a few voices, but I’m not sure which one is absolutely the loudest. So I will demur on that until I know for sure.


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Interview: Hand to God (Assembly Roxy 9 – 13 April ’19)

“I wish I had appreciated how difficult it is to focus when you’re laughing your head off!”

WHO: David Grimes, Director

WHAT: “Mild-mannered, shy Jason has sought solace in his mother’s Christian puppet ministry after the death of his father. In the basement of a conservative church in Cypress, Texas, Jason discovers a blossoming talent for puppetry and thinks that things might just turn out okay. His mom and Pastor Greg seem pleased, the local bully is largely indifferent, and his puppetry has even caught the eye of the cute girl in the youth group.

But the youth group has a monster in their midst: Jason’s puppet, Tyrone. As Tyrone’s foul-mouthed, irreverent, and devilishly funny influence over Jason steadily grows, no one’s secrets are safe. Not content with mere anarchy, Tyrone won’t be satisfied until
he’s dragged everyone to hell and back.

Is Tyrone simply Jason’s voice of grief and rage, or is Tyrone something far more sinister? Is Tyrone what he claims to be: the devil?

Hand to God, a play the New Yorker called Sesame Street meets The Exorcist, is a hilarious, lightening-paced, very adult comedy that explores the startling fragile nature of faith, morality, and familial ties that bind.”

WHERE: Assembly Roxy

DATES: 9 – 13 April (not Friday 12)

TIMES: 20:00

MORE: Click Here!


Why ‘Hand to God’?

I was fortunate to see ‘Hand to God’ in the West End in 2016, multiple times.  Perhaps it’s my southern US upbringing, but the play really resonated with me.  I found it to be one of the funniest plays I had ever experienced, and also one of the most moving and thought-provoking.  At the interval of my first viewing, I was already thinking about how much I wanted to get my hands on the material.  I come from the same area of the US that the play is set in.  I understand these characters.  I know them.  And yes, I’ve actually seen these youth ministries… I probably even participated in them during my childhood!  While the events may be exaggerated for humour, they are absolutely rooted in a US reality.

This is famously a script with a lot of premise and a lot of edge.  What’s at its heart?

‘Hand to God’ uses shock and extreme humour to slip important issues and an emotional punch past your defences.  Yes, the sweary puppets are funny.  Sure, the ending is gruesome.  Yes, the puppet sex is outrageous and you’ll hate yourself for laughing at Margery and Timothy, but you won’t be able to stop yourself from laughing.  All the while, the play delivers a deep message about grief, family, hope and healing.  After the laughter ends, you’ll still be thinking about the deeper messages and moments from the play.

Have you ever worked with puppets before?  And will you again?

I had a limited amount of experience with puppets prior to ‘Hand to God’.  I wasn’t a newbie, but hardly an expert.  Thankfully, most of the performers who manipulate the puppets were in the same boat.  Two had been in productions of Avenue Q previously.  Our puppets are dual arm rod puppets, which make them more difficult to manipulate.  We allowed for a longer rehearsal schedule to give the actors plenty of time to practice with their puppets.  We also built all of the puppets from scratch, as opposed to hiring them in.  Creating the puppets ourselves allowed us to tailor each puppet to meet its specific needs.  I’ve really enjoyed working with the puppets – they know their lines, always hit their blocking, and never complain!  I certainly wouldn’t shy away from another show with puppets, but the show would have to live up to the amazing script that we’ve had with ‘Hand to God’.

What will the EGTG production have that the original production missed?

We hope an audience!  In all seriousness, our production has a lot of heart.  Everyone involved is passionate about this project.  The performers have thrown themselves in with everything they’ve got and have produced a show that is really special.

What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of rehearsals?

I wish I had appreciated how difficult it is to focus when you’re laughing your head off!


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Interview: Yerma (13 – 16 March ’19)

“Lorca’s confidence in his plays is palpable in this beautiful subtly that we seldom see on stage today.”

WHO: Jane Prinsley and Laura Hounsell, co-Directors

WHAT: “A young woman is driven to the unthinkable by her desperate longing to conceive a child. Yerma, meaning barren in Spanish, is tortured by her inability to conceive and becomes increasingly consumed and disoriented by her pain.

Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 piece challenged the social order of the time and the claustrophobic expectations of a rural Spanish village. It is relevant in our world of pressure and expectation, where women can be just as crippled by the judgment around them.

In this bold new multi-sensory adaptation, Lorca’s age-old themes will be rendered contemporary.”

WHERE: Bedlam

DATES: 13 – 16 March

TIMES: 18:00

MORE: Click Here!


Why Yerma?

Lorca’s writing is timeless. He manages to articulate the pain of lost love, oppression and unfulfilled dreams in a totally contemporary way. The roles he has written for female actresses are second to none and the atmosphere of claustrophobia that he creates is beautifully painful. It was an exciting challenge to do justice to his talent.

How will such a young cast, most focused on their studies rather than settling down to parenthood, approach the play’s central themes?

Whilst our actors’ lives have taken different paths from their characters, they are predominantly the same age. It is fascinating for us to explore the lives of young people in a different setting. Furthermore, the play’s central themes of social pressure and expectation is ageless. Most people feel the pressure of their surroundings and so actors have been able to draw on their own insecurities and uncertainty about the world they live in. Also as ambitious female students, motherhood is something which we must seriously consider in our future plans. Whilst we are currently focusing on our studies, the pressures of having a family and a success carer is ever present and pressing. The themes of motherhood, loss and societal pressure on women are as familiar to us as they are to the play’s characters and we will approach them with the truth of our own concerns.

This play is set in a society more claustrophobic and traditionally-orientated than our own. Will contemporary audiences relate to this writing as anything more than a historical curiosity?

The pressures on Yerma and Juan to be parents and to have a successful relationship may have become more subtle in the years between today and Lorca’s rural Spain, but these pressures very much still shape our lives today. Lorca was a modern thinker and knew that most women were not best suited to being a housewife, but the stereotypes he was fighting against in his literature are still apparent. We have chosen to stage the play in an atemporal rural setting so that audiences from around the UK will be able to draw on their own experiences and backgrounds. Audiences can look forward to seeing a magnified version of our society today, where the New Zealand Prime Minister is asked on the BBC if she would propose to a man and where our own Prime Minister’s shoes receive more attention than her policies. Motherhood and femininity is so interwoven with being a modern woman that Yerma feels as relevant now as it did in the 1930s. In our adaptation of Yerma we have focussed more on these central themes as opposed to the historicism and hope to transcend the original 1930s setting.

The production is billed as a “multi-sensory adaptation”. What can we look forward to?

You can absolutely look forward to the music. Singer-songwriter Eve Simpson is joining our cast as an actor-musician and she has set Lorca’s poems to music. Oftentimes Lorca’s poems are cut or spoken, but we have tried to remain as true to his intentions as possible by having them sung. Furthermore, to create our atemporal aesthetic, Eve Simpson and Robin Gage have drawn on musical traditions from across the British Isles and some Flamenco styles.  We really are trying to create something multi-sensory, so also expect beautiful scents, visions and sounds in this production.

How does Yerma fit into the rest of the season at Bedlam?

The Bedlam season is varied and uncurated which is one of our many strengths. Yerma will bring innovation, music, joy, thought and opportunities for brilliant female actresses. It is exciting to overcome the challenge of staging a famous and loved play, which incorporates verse and prose and spoken and sung, but it is something that we as directors, our creative team and our talented cast have all relished. This week, Abi Morgon’s 2011 play Love Song is on at Bedlam and draws on similar themes of love and motherhood, so Yerma follows nicely. It is a coincidence that similar themes are being covered in both weeks, but perhaps the Spring weather has got us all thinking about fertility…

If you could ask the playwright a question, what would it be? What do you think he might answer?

How did you manage to write such convincing and tragic female parts? How were you able to articulate the female struggle in the Andalusian rural villages so perfectly and did you know at the time that you were creating something universal? Lorca was homosexual and a socialist and was seen as a threat to the far-right nationalist forces who murdered him. Perhaps his own struggle and isolation is written subtly into the women (and men) in his plays, who deal with repressed love, broken dreams and the feeling of being trapped.

What’s the one thing everyone should know about Lorca?

His fearless politics and how that manifested itself in his art, both as a writer and a painter. For Lorca, his art was a lifeline and one that cost him his life.

Is Yerma as good as Blood Wedding?

What a strange question! They are often printed together, along with The House of Bernarda Alba, and are sometimes billed as a rural tragedy trilogy, although that is to forget Dona Rosita the Spinster, another masterpiece. All of these plays have different plots and characters, but there is usually a woman fighting against expectation, oppressed love, an imposing older woman and men who seem lost. They are all reminiscent of Greek tragedy but feel distinctly modern. Yerma is our favourite because of the central theme of motherhood and the pressures around parenthood that do not seem to have changed since the 1930s. The play’s rapid energy and descent into madness was also something we were captivated by when we first encountered it. It is like a train that speeds towards its final crash.

Are there living artists who can hold a candle to Lorca and the Generation of ’27?

Lorca continues to inspire artists and creators but people should always read more of his work as it is rare to find words rendered as beautifully as his. We found a recent modern staging of Yerma to be contrary to the original aim of the piece as we love how the pain that Lorca portrays is elegantly told. His work is often simple and important action can happen offstage. Lorca’s confidence in his plays is palpable in this beautiful subtly that we seldom see on stage today.

What’s the one thing you know now, that you wish you had known at production’s start?

Collaboration is great. We’ve worked so much better together than we could have ever done individually. It is brilliant to bounce ideas around, disagree, agree and improve our work together. Going forward, we will always look to work in a collaborative style, both on the creative team and with actors.


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“I’m sure the circa 2008 red was distinctive because I had no expectations at all, yet it startled me.” – Author Kevin Begos discusses Tasting The Past

“Anything from Alaverdi Monastery in Georgia. Beautiful wines, and they are making heroic efforts to save local native grapes.”

After a chance encounter with an obscure Middle Eastern red, journalist Kevin Begos embarked on a ten-year journey to seek out the origins of wine.* What he unearthed is a whole world of forgotten grapes, each with distinctive tastes and aromas, as well as the archaeologists, geneticists, chemists-even a paleobotanist-who are deciphering wine down to molecules of flavour. In his Tasting The Past we meet a young scientist who sets out to decode the DNA of every single wine grape in the world; a researcher who seeks to discover the wines that Caesar and Cleopatra drank; and an academic who has spent decades analyzing wine remains to pinpoint ancient vineyards. Science illuminates wine in ways no critic can, and it has demolished some of the most sacred dogmas of the industry: for example, well-known French grapes aren’t especially noble.

Kevin Begos is an award-winning writer in the fields of energy, science, wine, the environment, and everyday people. He’s been a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and was a Correspondent for The Associated Press. Among the many titles in which his work has been published are A Field Guide for Science Writers, Scientific American, The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, Tablet, and The Christian Science Monitor. In 1992 Kevin conceived and published one of the first ever electronic books. The archive of papers from that pioneering project, undertaken 18 years before the invention of the iPad, are now held at the Bodleian Library.

*In the time since Kevin’s first encounter with the mysterious red in a Jordanian hotel room, Cremisan wines have been brought to wider attention through the critical praise of iconic restauranteur Yotam Ottolenghi and his sommeliers.

Tasting the Past: The Science of Flavor & the Search for the Origins of Wine was published in June 2018 by Algonquin Books. To find out more click here.


Why Tasting the Past?

I hoped to evoke three things: my original quest for a wine that I was never able to taste again; then my search for ancient grape varieties; finally an allusion to Proust.

This is the story of an encounter that became an obsession. At what point did you know for certain that you were actually writing a book?

2014, when I saw that the Cremisan wine could be part of a larger narrative.

Where was wine first produced?

At the moment evidence points towards the Caucasus Mountain region about 8 to 10,000 years ago, but there are vast areas along the Silk Road to the East that really haven’t been properly explored. The Chinese may have drunk a different type of wine even earlier.

If I could meet anyone from history, I’d like to meet the nameless individual who constructed the first shelf – the first artificial surface atop two brackets. What made them think of a shelf? What did they use it for? How did others react to the innovation? Is there a similar figure, lost in the mists of early wine technology and culture whom you would like to encounter?

The person who realized that some vines were self-pollinating hermaphrodites that always produce grapes. I’d call that the first domestication.

What’s the single worst / most disruptive thing to happen to wine since phylloxera?

The Napa Valley? OK, I am being bad. But I think that mad yet very successful focus on just a few French grape varieties influenced wine markets around the world, and not in a good way.

You’re castaway on a desert island. You have with you eight bottles of wine. What are they and why?

  1. The Cremisan Jandali/Hamdani white, because it connects me to the Cremisan red I will never taste again.
  2. COS Pithos Bianco, a complex orange/amphora wine from Sicily that suggests what the Romans might have drunk.
  3. Anything from Alaverdi Monastery in Georgia. Beautiful wines, and they are making heroic efforts to save local native grapes.
  4. Loup D’Or from Deidre Heekin. Her wines are often wildly surprising, and this one uses hybrid American grapes.
  5. “Our Wine” Rkatsiteli from Georgia. Gloriously primitive winemaking.
  6. Taylor Fladgate 20 Tawny Port. Because I love port but won’t have a fabulously expensive older bottle on hand when I get stranded (see next note).
  7. A pre-phylloxera bottle of Lafite Rothschild. Because I sold everything to buy it and became a castaway.
  8. A Rhone Syrah, because I love Syrah and find so many surprises among producers there.

Honestly, was the Israeli/Palestinian, pre-commercial vintage of Cremisan wine you encountered at the start of your journey any good or were you sampling with rose-tinted tastebuds?

I’m sure the circa 2008 red was distinctive because I had no expectations at all, yet it startled me. Their winemaker then had been at Cremisan for many decades, and others say he really knew what he was doing.

On the day you come to supreme power what’s the first law you’ll decree in relation to wine?

Everyone has to try an unfiltered amphora/orange wine at least once.

You published one of the first e-books, Agrippa (1992). It’s kind of like hearing that President Grant was issued a $20 speeding ticket in 1872. How did you one go about publishing an e-Book in the late 20th century?

I did it either very badly or fabulously well, opinions differ. In the beginning, I didn’t have the faintest idea how to create an e-book. An idle comment turned into a wild obsession, then a few programmers/hackers made it happen, notably John Perry Barlow, John Gilmore, and one person who chose to remain anonymous.

What’s next for you?

Either a medieval poet or Darwin and orchids.


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“It’s too easy to depict the women as the only victims of the ambition and cruelty that pervaded the dynasty.” – Author Guy de la Bédoyère discusses Domina

“Who could resist the chance to take time out at Tivoli? It’s the Roman world in miniature…”

Notorious. What other word can encompass the lives led by the women of the Julio-Claudian dynasty? As Rome morphed from a Republic to an Empire under the emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero their wives and mothers took centre stage. With varying profiles of courage, ruthlessness, and skill women such as Livia, Octavia, as well as the elder and younger Agrippina, emerged as the true backbone of the dynasty. Their stories are familiar from the pages of I, Claudius. The various and nefarious paths each woman took to power are chronicled in Guy de la Bedoyere’s Domina, a behind-the-scenes tour of the machinery and chicanery that really made the Roman Empire tick.

Guy de la Bédoyère was born in Wimbledon and studied Archaeology and History at the Universities of Durham and London. Starting in 1998 he appeared regularly on the Channel 4 archaeological television series Time Team. That same year he became a freelance writer and broadcaster. In addition to his many respected studies of the Romans, especially during their occupation of Britain, Guy has published books chronicling the lives and friendship of the diarists Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn.

Domina: The Women Who Made Imperial Rome was published in September 2018 by Yale University Press. To find out more click here.


Why ‘Domina’?

Domina was the formal name for the female head of a household. Indeed, it comes from the word for a house, domus. The senior women of the imperial family were addressed by that title though some were also called Augusta if they had been given that title (not all empresses were). Domina covers all of them.

Roman women ran the household, many of which were staffed by people held as slaves. Why are we still surprised that Roman women knew how to successfully manage, manipulate, and tyrannise?

Roman history is completely dominated by accounts of men and written in terms of their lives or careers. There are no ‘lives’ of the empresses, for example. Roman women, especially powerful ones, were subjected to a great deal of stereotyping by Roman historians who either depicted them as women of great honour and purity, or as duplicitous and immoral schemers. These were rhetorical devices that were used by them to depict their husbands and sons in a good or bad light. Extrapolating the truth is very difficult and perhaps now impossible.

What is clear is that while women were able to operate outside the ‘system’ because they held no office, they were also restricted by having to work through men. There is no doubt that this led to a certain amount of subterfuge and lateral approaches. Those who were most successful were also the most vulnerable and liable to terrible retribution. But it is important to understand that the men of the dynasty suffered equally hideous fates too. It’s too easy to depict the women as the only victims of the ambition and cruelty that pervaded the dynasty.

The book details many of the objects created to enhance the image of the Julio/Claudian dynasty. If you could pocket one, even if you needed a very big pocket, which would it be?

I already have it. It’s the silver cistophorus coin of Claudius and Agrippina the Younger made at Ephesus in 51. There they are with their heads beside each other in the manner of joint rulers. It was unprecedented and never repeated. It shows how far she had managed to get. I was so fascinated by the coin I purchased it. It inspired the book.

Did Agrippina the Elder live up to the hype? Would she have made a good Augusta?

Agrippina the Elder was dealt a terrible blow when her husband Germanicus died in 19 in Syria. That destroyed any chance she had of becoming an empress unless she had been allowed long enough to survive into her son Caligula’s reign. Again, what is the truth? Tacitus was keen to depict her as a victim and as a woman of great dignity. It would seem that in some respects he may have been right. Germanicus and she would have been celebrated by the mob had he been made emperor. But for all we know he could have descended into despotism like their son Caligula. Who knows what Agrippina would have turned into?

Might the stupendous fabric of the Roman system have resisted yielding to the pressure of its own weight for longer if women had been woven in directly and able to exercise power in their own right, rather than through an occasionally pliant male?

Again, this is completely speculative and with so many factors involved it is impossible to say. The rise of the Severan women in the third century and then certain women like Galla Placidia in the fifth show that under certain circumstances women could gain even more remarkable power than the Julio-Claudians. But the Roman world was a militarized superstate and it depended on military leadership to survive. The women would have had to be prepared to lead armies. Agrippina the Elder showed that some women came close to being able to do that.

I’m guessing there’s a copy of ‘I, Claudius’ somewhere on your bookshelves. Are there any contemporary novelists (who use ancient Rome as their setting) there too? Who do you esteem and recommend?

In all honesty, I do not read much fiction and especially not ancient fiction. The real story is quite compelling enough. In fact, had a novelist invented the Julio-Claudians and their story he or she would have been laughed at for writing something so implausible. The little ancient fiction I have read usually contains the odd quite significant error that makes them totally implausible.

You’ve got a one-way ticket to the Roman Empire for you and your family. When and where are you taking them?

Funnily enough, not Rome. It would either be Pompeii and the chance to see the faces of the people who lived in the houses I have visited there, and to smell the place, or it would be Lullingstone Villa in Kent. I know Lullingstone very well. The setting is little changed and I’d love to see the original house as a living home with the people who lived there.

You’ve got a solo return ticket for either a year on campaign with Julius Caesar; a fortnight with Hadrian and his entourage at Tivoli; or a day in the Library of Alexandria. Which do you choose?

Who could resist the chance to take time out at Tivoli? It’s the Roman world in miniature with fabulous buildings and doubtless visited by interesting people, but most especially because of Hadrian. I’d like to meet him. He’d have been mesmerized by tales of the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution.

Will there ever be anything as good as Time Team on telly again?

Was it really that good? There’s a lot of rose-tinted spectacles going on with Time Team. It was great fun to be on and a privilege to participate in. I saw some remarkable places and met some very special people. But it was around for too long. The experience became repetitive and began to turn into a dog-day afternoon, especially on dud sites where we scrabbled around for a story. In fact making TV programmes is generally very boring and I got very bored of it.

On the whole I avoid TV like the plague now. The thought of hanging round all day on set is too ghastly to contemplate. Time Team was very expensive to make and those days are long gone. There will certainly be nothing like it again, at least not in our time, because the budgets do not exist to make shows like that. As for ‘as good’ I’m sure that as time moves on later generations will find plenty in their own lives that is just as good, even if it’s completely different. All things must pass. And Time Team is past – forever.

What’s next for you?

Perhaps I should think about selling one of my 1970s Honda motorcycles before I do anything else! I’ve been writing books for over thirty years. That is what I mainly do now, but with an increasing sense of uncertainty about where books and publishing are headed. I have two books on the boil at the moment, one a survey book of life in the Roman army from original sources, and one about how the Romans became rich and what it did to them.

I have lecture tours in Australia and New Zealand in 2020. After that, who knows? I travel a lot with my wife and we are enjoying seeing our granddaughters grow up. I’m 61 now and keen to make the most of being fit and well and having the time to do things I haven’t an opportunity to do before. Mick Aston was only five years older than I am now when he died. Robin Bush, Time Team’s archivist, was only six years older than I am now when he went. Tragedies like that are a lesson not to sit around waiting for the ‘right time’ to do something. As Mr Micawber said in David Copperfield, ‘something will turn up’.


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“Male relations in this period were generally more physical. For warmth as well as protection, powerful men would routinely share a bed with their underlings.” – Author Benjamin Woolley discusses The King’s Assasin

“George’s political vision has generally been underestimated. I think Dumas has something to do with this, fixing a not entirely undeserved image of him as a dandy and libertine.”

The rise of George Villiers from regional obscurity to the heart of the Jacobean court defied logic. A meteoric royal favourite, the young gallant enraptured James VI & I. Britain’s first Stuart king even declared that he wanted the beloved courtier to become his ‘wife’. For a decade, Villiers was at the king’s side – at court, on state occasions and in bed, right up to James’ death in March 1625.

As Charles I’s reign dawned Villiers’ star was reaching its zenith. Villiers had groomed the shy and awkward Charles to don the very public mantle of monarchy. Villiers’ tempestuous relationship with the late king, his closeness to Charles, and their not-so-private clashes with the old King over Britain’s place in Europe led many tounges to wag. Was George Villiers more than a spectator at James’ deathbed? Almost immediately a parliamentary investigation was launched. Scurrilous pamphlets and ballads circulated London’s streets. But the charges came to nothing, and have since been relegated to a historical footnote.

In The King’s Assasin Benjamin Woolley reexamines the evidence and plots a course through the murky Jacobean interplay of hubris and vulnerability with that flare for historical narrative, intricate detail, and big personalities familiar both in print and on television. Woolley is the author of the bestselling The Queen’s Conjuror: The Life and Magic of Dr John Dee. His first book, Virtual Worlds was shortlisted for the Rhone-Poulenc Prize and has been translated into eight languages. His second, The Bride of Science, examined the life of Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter.

He has written and presented documentaries for the BBC on subjects ranging from the fight for liberty during the English Civil War to the end of the Space Age. He has won the Arts Journalist of the Year award and an Emmy for his commentary for Discovery’’s Three Minutes to Impact. He lives in London.

The King’s Assassin: The Fatal Affair of George Villiers and James I was published in August 2017 by Macmillan. To find out more click here.


Why George Villiers?

I first encountered George many years ago, researching another story. I found a long-forgotten transcript of a notebook written by a member of parliament. It was one of very few eye-witness records of a secret trial of this extraordinary figure who had become a favourite of King James. The notes were fragmentary and difficult to piece together, but despite this I caught glimpses of a character so beguiling, so mischievous, so charismatic, so besotted by his friends and despised by his enemies that I could not resist.

How accurate is Alexandre Dumas’s portrait of George Villiers in The Three Musketeers?

Of George, Dumas wrote: ‘At thirty-five…he passed, with just title, for the handsomest gentleman and the most elegant cavalier of France or England. The favourite of two kings, immensely rich, all-powerful in a kingdom which he disordered at his fancy and calmed again at his caprice’. That is a pretty accurate summary (though he was not exactly a favourite of Louis XIII – indeed, he made several passes at the French king’s his wife, which did not go unnoticed). Dumas also noted that he ‘lived one of those fabulous existences which survive, in the course of centuries, to astonish posterity’.

Did James VI & I and George Villiers have a physical or a platonic relationship? Does it matter either way?

Male relations in this period were generally more physical. For warmth as well as protection, powerful men would routinely share a bed with their underlings. But I believe James and George’s relationship to have been carnal. This is a complicated issue, as the boundary between physical intimacy and sex has shifted over the centuries. James undoubtedly doted on George, and wrote of his ‘dog’ with deep affection. The intensity of their relationship was revealed by their frequent bust-ups. After one, James fantasised about George becoming his ‘wife’. Following another, George recalled their first night together at Farnham Castle, ‘where the bed’s head could not be found between the master and his dog’.

Can George Villiers role in government be thought of as that of a proto-Prime Minister, a signpost to later first ministers managing both parliament and the executive?

One point of comparison certainly holds. Parliament became his political nemesis. Despite being a dominant figure in government, parliament proved impossible to manage. For a while, he was a favourite of MPs, hailed as ‘St George on Horseback’ for standing up to the Spanish. But leading up to James’s death in 1625 and following a series of military disasters, they turned against him. It led to the charges that he had murdered the king, as well as abused his office. Efforts by James’s heir Charles to defend George led to the antagonisms between crown and parliament that culminated with the Civil War.

Did George Villiers have a vision or public policy agenda beyond his own ambition?

George’s political vision has generally been underestimated. I think Dumas has something to do with this, fixing a not entirely undeserved image of him as a dandy and libertine. But as he matured, he developed a strong vision of national renewal, culminating with ambitious (and ultimately disastrous) efforts to put Britain at the heart of a new global order, built around an alliance with Europe’s Protestant states that would challenge the dominance of the Spanish and Holy Roman empires. It was this vision that led to him falling out with James, who was much more cautious and conciliatory when it came to foreign affairs.

Did James VI & I die unaided?

Big question. In 1625, while the king lay on his sickbed, apparently recovering from a bout of malaria (common in England at the time), George administered a ‘potion and plaster’ which led to a sudden and catastrophic deterioration in the king’s condition. No one knew what was in the medicine, and the only person who claimed to have tasted it before it was administered (the standard method of checking for safety in the era before phase 3 drug trials) was the man who had mixed it on George’s behalf. That much we know from the royal doctors who treated the king during his final illness and (reluctantly) testified before the secret House of Commons committee set up to investigate the episode. A toxicologist I consulted was fairly certain that the potion was a poison—he even identified the toxin. Others are sceptical, and there is certainly room for doubt. What we do know is that George interfered at a vital moment, and the outcome was one that enabled him to put into place the policies James had been so fiercely resisting in his final months.

How seriously should high Anglicans, such as The Society of King Charles the Martyr, take the accusation that Charles I was a patricidal regicide?

After George had given James the unauthorised ‘potion and plaster’, a delegation of royal doctors had gone to Charles to protest, begging him to intervene. He refused. Following his succession, Charles also issued pardons and pensions to the doctors who had turned a blind eye. It was certainly a suspicion among MPs that Charles was involved. Two were arrested and had their houses searched for implying it might be the case, precipitating a parliamentary crisis.

Did Francis Bacon have any genuine esteem for George Villiers, or were his motivations simply venal?

More sexual than venal. Accused throughout his career of being a ‘sodomite’ (then a capital crime) and a ‘pederast’, Bacon was certainly infatuated by George. But he had to tread carefully to avoid upsetting the king, who was notoriously jealous. He nevertheless became devoted to George, becoming a loyal mentor and advocate, and offering advice on statecraft at a crucial moment in the favourite’s rise. He also cut a pathetic figure when George spurned him.

Was the Royal College of Physicians a force for good in the early modern period about which you write?

No. Another of my books, The Herbalist, about the radical medic Nicholas Culpeper, shows how corrupt the College had become by this time. Medical practice was based on the notion that health was determined by a balance of four bodily ‘humours’, a theory formalised by the Roman medic Galen in the second century AD. One of the leading members of the College, William Harvey (who was at James’s bedside in his final moments and became close to Charles following the king’s death) is rightly hailed as one of the greatest figures in medical science. He performed a series of experiments disproving the prevailing assumption that blood seeped through the body like sap in a tree by showing its circulation, pumped by the heart. His discovery made a nonsense of the notion of humours, yet Harvey was one of the College ‘censors’ who expelled any physician who questioned Galen’s theories.

The College also enjoyed a monopoly over medical practice throughout London and the suburbs, which they used to restrict the number of doctors who could practice. This ensured demand and fees for their services were kept well beyond the reach of most ordinary people. In 1625, London was hit by one of the worst epidemics of the plague in recorded history. Nevertheless, while James lay sick at his country retreat, more Fellows of the College were at his bedside than in all of London.

What are you currently working on?

A history of Black Bile – the ‘humour’ associated melancholy.


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Interview: All About My Mother (21 – 24 Nov ’18)

“I still find it breath-taking that Almodovar was talking about gender, identity and sexuality in the totally commonplace way he did nearly 20 years ago.”

WHO: Ross Hope, Director

WHAT: “Spain, 1999.

In Barcelona, Manuela makes a new life for herself after the death of her son, working on a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire. She is reunited with an old transgender friend, Agrado, who she finds working as a prostitute, and makes new friends in the shape of Rosa, a terminally ill young nun, and Huma Rojo, the famous and formidable grand dame stage actress whom her late son idolised.As Manuela rebuilds her life in a new city with a new job and new friends, her son’s estranged father returns to her life with tragic and life-changing consequences for them all.”

WHERE: Assembly Roxy 

DATES: 21 – 24 November

TIMES: 19:30

MORE: Click Here!


Why All About My Mother?

Honestly, it’s quite a simple reason. I read the script after seeing the film and enjoyed it so much I knew wanted to direct it. I buy and read a lot (and I mean a lot) of play scripts and I bought this one only because as I was curious about how they would adapt the film into a play. I read it cover to cover in one sitting. The last time I reacted to a script like this was when I read ‘Jerusalem’ by Jez Butterworth, which I was also lucky enough to direct, I knew if I felt the same way as I did about Jerusalem I wanted to direct this too.

You first saw the movie version at the Filmhouse in 2000. Has the story aged well?

I think it has, although you would expect me to say that wouldn’t you? At its heart, this is a story about family, not necessarily the family you are born into but the family you create for yourself; friendship and acceptance. These themes are still important, interesting and relevant nearly 20 years later. So this story of these characters creating families, forming friendships and gaining acceptance has aged perfectly well as far as I am concerned.

The film on which the play is based was a critical success (an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA) can audiences expect to see anything new in this adaptation?

The play is actually slightly different to the film. It is longer for one thing and the tale is told in a different, as you’d expect more theatrical and not cinematic way, and not all the characters in the film are present in this production. If you are an Almodovar aficionado and are wanting to compare the two you’ll just have to come to the Assembly Roxy in November and see where the differences are for yourself!

Art tends to imitate life, but do you think All About My Mother has played a part in developing and progressing our attitudes over the last couple of decades?

I still find it breath-taking that Almodovar was talking about gender, identity and sexuality in the totally commonplace way he did nearly 20 years ago. I am not sure I realised myself then how progressive it was for the late 1990’s as I was a lot younger then because it truly was and still is. Maybe art does imitate life, as you say, but I also think art gives life the kick starts it needs to get to where we are. A lot of the attitudes that are being challenged in the play still need to be challenged today and as much as we have come so far as a progressive society, we still have a long way to go.

What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of rehearsals?

I wish I had remembered what an undertaking rehearsing in a small rehearsal space was like. It might have stopped me telling the cast, night after night, “you’ll have more room in the venue!”


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INTERESTED IN BEING INTERVIEWED TOO? CLICK HERE!