ARENA SPECIAL: Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour meets classicist and secret Floyd-head Mary Beard in the ruins of Pompeii. LAURA BARTON sees a funny thing happen on the way to the amphitheatre… Pictures: Sarah Lee

“I probably first saw the Pompeiian amphitheatre with Floyd in it,” says Mary Beard. “And I only visited it later. Because back in the day I was quite a Pink Floyd fan.” We are standing in the middle of Pompeii in the blazing sun of a July afternoon, and Beard, famed Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, author of numerous books on ancient Rome, and celebrated host of BBC Two’s Meet The Romans, is granting David Gilmour and his wife, the author Polly Samson, a guided tour of the ruins. Beard is resplendent in snakeskin trainers; Gilmour is in black t-shirt and jeans, a faint sheen blooming across his forehead. “This,” says Beard, brightly, “was the Saffron Walden of the ancient world.”

Over their shoulders, at the far side of the arena, stands a very modern stage, across which black-clad roadies beetle about in the heat trailing cables, testing lights, snares, amplifiers. This evening Gilmour will play here in the amphitheatre as part of a two-night residency. These two shows carry considerable sentimental weight for Gilmour and his fans. In 1971, Pink Floyd famously played here, but with an audience not permitted inside the ancient ruins they performed to an empty arena, the concert filmed and released as the 1972 documentary Pink Floyd: Live At Pompeii.

For the city, too, it is a remarkable moment. Gilmour’s shows make the first performance to an audience here since AD79, when Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the ancient city 25 metres-deep in tephra. And as you walk along Pompei’s streets today there is the giddy air of the carnival — in the cafes and the tourist shops, and the crowds gathered beside the gates, a kind of mild disbelief that this is actually, finally, happening.

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Rome, if you want to: David Gilmour with Mary Beard, Pompeii, July 2016. Picture: Sarah Lee

The shows here at Pompeii make up part of the Rattle That Lock world tour which began last September and has become his longest solo tour to date. For its European leg Gilmour has largely rejected the cavernous modern arenas and chosen instead to play a handful of heritage sites — Circus Maximus in Rome, a chateau in Chantilly, amphitheatres in Verona and Nîmes and five nights at the Royal Albert Hall in London this September. In some regard this is surely a way to keep the touring musician engaged, an effort to actively enjoy life on the road. But it is also a rather beautiful way to rouse such locations from their historic slumber; to give them life and vibrancy and purpose once more.

Pompeii is the smallest of these venues, holding close to 3,000 people. Nevertheless for Gilmour it is the most overwhelming – filled with the memories of those days in the early 70s when the director Adrian Maben came up with what the amphitheatre museum’s exhibition has labelled “rock’s wackiest idea”, with the hours they filled wandering around Vesuvius as Maben grappled with red tape, with the heat so intense they played with their shirts off.

‘Pink Floyd Live At Pompeii’, 1972: fast-forward to 10.00 for music

There are the memories, too, of the band he joined in 1967 and retired in 1994; the success that carried them from the late sixties to the mid-eighties, the disputes and disagreements that led to their demise, the departures of Syd Barrett, Rick Wright, Roger Waters, scuffles over royalties, legal rows, and a brief, bittersweet reunion for Live 8 in 2005. Much of the set over these two nights will draw from Gilmour’s four solo records, but there are plenty of Floyd tracks too. Although ‘One Of These Days’ will be the only song to have been played at Pink Floyd’s 1971 performance, there is room enough for ‘Wish You Were Here’, ‘Money’, ‘Comfortably Numb’. On the first night, a rendition of ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ seems to carry fresh poignancy 10 years to the day since Syd Barrett passed away, and Gilmour pays tribute to the late Rick Wright with ‘A Boat Lies Waiting’. It is Wright’s absence, Gilmour notes beforehand, that means he cannot play ‘Echoes’.

But there is a burst of something new here too: Gilmour’s band has been recast for this leg — though Guy Pratt remains on bass and Steve DiStanislao on drums, they are joined by Chuck Leavell — the Rolling Stones’ keyboard player since 1981, Michael Jackson’s musical director Greg Phillinganes, Chester Kamen on guitar and Joao Mello on saxophone, and Bryan Chambers, Louise Clare Marshall and Lucita Jules on backing vocals. They walk about the amphitheatre this afternoon brimming with a sense of occasion, with the sense that somehow this has actually been pulled off.

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“It is one of the best most stunning roman amphitheatres in the world — it’s the earliest one to survive,” says Mary Beard, looking out around the rows of seats and the yellowing grass. “It’s got a wonderful arena in the middle. Seats going up all around. It probably would once have sat 15,000 maybe even more.”

The lay-out, she explains, “was the microcosm of a Roman town — the higher up you sat, the less socially important you were. Probably the women were at the back, and at the front sat the senators, with people holding shades over them. It’s incredibly carefully designed,” she adds. “There’s a wall so the guys there don’t mix with the middle guys back here.” But wherever they sat, the audience, she says gleefully, “would look down into the central space where gladiators fought wild beasts of some description, and the beasts would get rather brutally and horribly slaughtered.”

Gilmour’s wife Polly Samson suggested he invite Mary Beard to Pompeii… but she’d already bought tickets for the show.

Beard’s presence here today came about through a happy collision of events. “Polly had already said ‘You know what you should do? Get Mary Beard to come!’” recalls Gilmour — both he and Samson had been reading Beard’s books and had watched her television shows. But when they contacted Beard they found that she and her husband, both dedicated Floyd-heads, already had tickets. Beard beams — the smile of a woman about to see one of her favourite musicians play a venue she has spent much of her life studying, and visited, she reckons, more than 100 times.

The logistics involved in staging Gilmour’s shows at Pompeii have already been quite dazzling. The years have taken their toll on the structure. It now represents what we might blithely call a health and safety nightmare. A member of the lighting crew has already broken his arm falling down an unexpected hole, and the promise of fireworks to be launched over tinder-dry grass has alerted the attention of the local fire department who now stand in the afternoon sun, unravelling a fire hose with an air that hangs somewhere between nonchalance and weary malaise. Behind them, church bells ring out across the broad blue sky and a drone hovers against high above the blossom.

Backstage, much of the talk has been of toilets. There are, it is whispered, a mere 22 portaloos for 3,000 people, and even the luxury artist facilities are capable of a limited number of flushes before they must be swiftly emptied. Still, Beard assures us, this is probably better than in Roman times, when it would have been “phenomenally smelly. I don’t know what the clean-up operation would have been like.” Gilmour looks concerned. “They’d pee against the wall I suppose?” he asks. Beard looks a little wicked: “My opinion,” she says, “is that they’d pee in their seats.”

Just what went on in Pompeii in Roman times is not quite as dramatic as fans of Hollywood movies might expect; Beard’s reference to Saffron Walden assures us that gladiatorial contest here was not exactly Premier League level. “I think if you said to a Roman ‘think of a gladiator’ they would have thought of big metal helmets, tridents, nets… like what we saw in the movie Gladiator,” she says. “And here in Pompeii some of that equipment that gladiators used has been discovered.”

Pompeii’s arena might not have been as exotic as you think. “Tigers are expensive! It would be wild boar, perhaps the odd sheep instead…”

But it was unlikely to have been quite as grand a production as we might like to picture. “I think it wasn’t quite as bloody, quite as destructive as our imaginations have us believe. For quite obvious reasons. If you imagine this amphitheatre here in Pompeii, and you imagine wild beasts, lions and tigers, hippopotamuses, the animals you might get in Rome… where did people in Pompeii get them from? I mean this is a small, not very important town in Southern Italy. It’s doing alright, but it’s not very rich. Tigers are really expensive!

“So my picture of what kind of beast hunts we had here, most times, maybe there were a few particular spectacles, but it would be what you could catch in the local mountains. It would be wild boar, perhaps the odd sheep. And my picture of the people in Pompeii is that in their heads they would have the fantasy of something spectacular, but what they saw was possibly a bit tawdry.”

The fighting itself was perhaps also more theatre than true battle. “There’s a real cause for relief here because I don’t think as many gladiators died in combat as we imagine and we fantasise about. And that that isn’t because Romans are particularly nice, it’s because gladiators are expensive, it’s part of a business. Someone puts on a gladiatorial show. One of the local bigwigs says ‘I will put on a gladiatorial show to show the local people how good I am’ so I go to a local gladiatorial impressario, who’ll come along with his troops – probably not totally different to organising a gig. And the impresario isn’t going to want to lose all his gladiators! They’re expensive!”

Was it, posits Samson, a little like American wrestling? Beard nods. “We like to think it’s like boxing, but really it was probably more like wrestling. It was for real in a way, but I suspect it was more choreographed than we think.”

“So it was dirtier, smellier, louder, with less glamorous beasts?” Samson sums up. “And in some way with less real blood,” Beard nods. We look out around the arena. “Have we evolved?” Gilmour asks. “Well,” says Beard, “schoolteachers teach that we don’t do this anymore. But maybe we do it in a different way, and we don’t realise it.”

Whether the ancient Romans would have witnessed anything close to Gilmour’s performances is muddy territory. “If only we knew!” says Beard. “One of the things that’s frustrating about ancient Roman history is that we do know a little bit about their interest in music, and we do know music could be terribly important. What was Emperor Nero’s favourite hobby? It was playing the lyre. And there is a sense of a bit of star-studded musical celebrity culture.

“Nero’s hobby was playing the lyre. There is a sense of star-studded musical celebrity culture in Rome…”

“The trouble is, we can’t hear the music. And because they’re mostly made of wood, their instruments didn’t survive. There are some bits, very, very faint traces of musical notation. But the trouble is it isn’t like our musical notation. We can see what it might have been but we can’t really decode it. It’s one of those bits of the ancient world that must have been important, but are tantalisingly just outside our reach.”

At a gladiatorial show there would have been some musical accompaniment — Beard points to paintings that show trumpets and fanfare and drumming. “There would have been the poor guys walking in, and with them there are blokes playing big horns, so it  must have been quite a noisy, possibly quite musical occasion. But you can’t hear it. You have to imagine it.”

“Did they do theatre here?” Gilmour asks. “You’ve got at least one or two places in the town where rather more up-market entertainment took place. There’s graffiti around town talking not just about gladiators but about actors.” “What about sex shows?” Samson asks, and Beard smiles.

“Some of the shows were what you might call bawdy. The lower bodily strata was what was going on.”

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As the amphitheatre fills for the opening night’s show I stand with Polly Samson on the summa cavea – the highest section of the amphitheatre – watching the sky soften into night, a crescent moon rising above Mount Vesuvius, the air heavy and fragrant and warm. Below us, the arena is suddenly alive, writhing with bodies and excitement. At nine o’clock, lights suddenly flare out across the crowd and the cavea, and the notes of 5am begin to play.

It is a polite set at first. The crowd stand quite still and rapt, as if uncertain of just how to behave in this magnificent yet peculiar setting. Gilmour, meanwhile, speaks a few quiet, thankful words, so at odds with the music and the spectacle that it seems impossible that this bashful man could be behind the extraordinary guitar sound that springs from the speakers. It is only once he hits ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ that the crowd seems to exhale and relax, limber now as he runs through ‘Money’ and ‘Wish You Were Here’.

“You alright?” Samson asks Gilmour as he steps off stage in the interval. “Bit nervous in places,” he replies, and kisses her. The second half of the show is more raucous, charged with burning torches, fireworks and lasers so bright the band must wear shades — the handiwork of the legendary lighting designer Marc Brickman, but still Gilmour seems mildly surprised by all the hullaballoo, thanking the audience with a warm kind of wonder for the “lovely evening” they have had.

“I think the ancient people of Pompeii, if they came to this, would probably think that it was a bit decorous,” says Beard. “The mess, the hint always of violence and blood, was what they’re used to. [Gladiatorial combat] is about spectacle, it’s about noise, it’s about the senses, it’s about shock. And they don’t call it an amphitheatre. It’s a wonderful little giveaway that they call it a ‘spectacular’. It’s about entertainment, it’s about sight, vision, noise, excitement, its basic history was of people being on the edge of their seat.”

For Beard, Gilmour’s return to Pompeii is also pleasingly entangled with her own life. “I remember watching the documentary in 1972, and later on I met the person who was going to be my husband,” she says. “Quite soon after he went off to make a rather high-minded film about byzantine art history with a guy called Adrian Maben… I thought that name’s a bit familiar.

“It was only later that the penny dropped and I realised that he was making a movie with the guy who’d made the Floyd movie. So I feel surprisingly at home here. Both with the past that I studied, but also with my past too.”

Laura Barton writes for The Guardian and presents Notes From A Musical Island on BBC Radio 4. 

Hear more on the Gilmour/Beard Pompeii Extravaganza from Laura, plus more exciting extras from the world of pop culture, on this edition of the weekly Bigmouth podcast:



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