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tv in ba
Editor Mike Pitts
tv in ba
Archaeology on television receives little informed appraisal. British Archaeology is changing that, with help from students on the only university course blending television and archaeological theory and practice, the Bristol MA in Archaeology for Screen Media. Tutor Angela Piccini introduces this new regular feature
Did you watch Boudica, ITV’s September drama? Your disgruntled letters suggest many of you did. What makes a good television programme? Is popular television compatible with good archaeology? Who makes the programmes, and who decides their content?
TV in BA is a review column. Every two months we will be looking at what was broadcast, and considering such questions. This will not be the snide armchair critique that dogs television archaeology. Much criticism of Boudica, for example—‘why were the noble elite of an advanced Iron Age tribe dressed in drab rags and covered in mud?’—missed the point. Television works on different levels. It is important to note inaccuracies, but also to understand how TV works: so we might, for example, need to ask if downtrodden Celts better fit contemporary notions of victim politics than confident nouveaux riches warriors.
The top five October-November broadcasts employed very different approaches: docu-drama in Pompeii and Ancient Egyptians; hands-on materiality in Seven Wonders of the Industrial World and Time Flyers; and spiritual nationhood in Seven Ages of Britain. Most of these, however, were historical narrative. Artefacts, spaces, buildings, landscapes were not the focus, but were used to keep the story going. Of the five perhaps only Time Flyers was really ‘archaeology’. It was not a mere illustrated story: it was about creating landscapes, to show the ground beneath our feet as a palimpsest of Britishness. We think the docudramas worked best, however—at least they got everyone arguing.
Dramatic reconstructions dominated autumn’s history output. The first in the Ancient Egyptians series followed the documented story of Tuthmosis III, ‘Egypt’s Greatest Warrior Pharaoh’ and included creative subplots of a professional Nubian soldier and peasant farmer. This was an individual, social history focus with naturalistic acting, and ‘authentic’ language, costumes and camera work.
We heard of Syrian scrolls that appeared to contradict the ‘official’ text, but the fascinating issue of our trust in the written word was avoided. Creative use of such evidence could have provided an interesting dramatic representation of the questions behind interpreting ancient texts.
The big success was Pompeii: the Last Day, bringing in a huge audience (twice Boudica’s) that cannot fail to impress broadcasters. Writer Edward Canford-Dumas (Harbour Lights) focused on key residents on the day Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, constructing a ‘day in the life’ approach before slipping into disaster narrative high drama.
Given the tenuous evidence, artefacts—slave’s bracelet, gold coins and gladiator’s helmet—worked particularly well as ordinary objects caught up in extraordinary events. The acting and dialogue were engaging (a whinging daughter complained ‘I hate being shut in!’ to which her comforting mother replied ‘It won’t be forever…’). Yet there was a hint of televised Dickens’ London or Cromwell’s Civil War that made ancient Pompeii overly familiar. Why were 1st century AD families pictured in that non-time of being ‘just like us’?
When Vesuvius erupted, human drama blended with spectacular computer-generated images (CGI) and volcanic archive footage. We watched to see the innocents consumed. It worked because it winked at us—programme and audience engaged in a suspension of disbelief. We knew this is not how these people really lived, but the film gave us the pleasures of storytelling with things complemented by the reality of objects and the event itself.
Mark Horton, Jo Caruth and Dave Macleod returned to BBC2 with another Time Flyers season. Once again the helicopter, high-tech graphics, sweeping aerial photography and rock music dispelled TV archaeology’s ghosts of ‘traditional’ Celtic music and straight-to-camera filmmaking.
Horton has been the focus of much criticism, not least for his boffin presentation style. What really do the subject a disservice are the hyperbole of programmes like ‘Stonehenge of the North’ (Thornborough), and the juxtaposition of his everyman/expert roles, giving the clear sense that archaeology is not for mere mortals.
Where Time Flyers succeeded is in its bringing together different ways of understanding. The appearance of professional and amateur specialists from a range of intellectual contexts marked out this series: local archaeologists guided us through WWI test trenches near Sheffield; a blacksmith hammered out a knife using ancient techniques; a young geologist explained the reflective qualities of gypsum.
Landscape Mysteries (BBC/Open University eight-part series, from 25 September) was an understated gem that brought the principles of archaeology without the rivals’ visual glitz. Sandwiched between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the travel slot, it was not included in BBC2’s Tuesday-night history line-up, and now removed from iBBC2 is buried in the OU website.
Like Time Flyers, Landscape Mysteries recognised the importance of both site contexts and landscape to understanding past communities. Yet the series was refreshingly ‘untrendy’. Computer-generated reconstructions were used sparingly but usefully. Aubrey Manning gently took us through the various types of evidence. His presentation style is simple and sympathetically measured, reassuring us that the half hour was sufficient to tell the story. It was conventional but it spoke to us.
So we come to Seven Ages of Britain. Though the biggest news for archaeologists this autumn, Seven Ages owed more to the Simon Schama school (A History of Britain) than to excavation-led programming. Bettany Hughes, fresh from her previous Channel 4 series, The Spartans, narrated and presented. Unlike Schama, Hughes has no academic claims to legitimise the script, which was a collaboration with Justin Pollard, series producer and author of the accompanying book.
As we watched frequent long shots of Hughes against an impressive landscape, her wistful face, dark hair and coat tails whipped by the wind, it became increasingly difficult to read her as a popular historian. She narrated and delivered to camera confidently, though the tilt of her head and under-the-breath delivery reminded us of Nigella’s kitchen. The production was accomplished, but episodes lacked creative spark. The interviews felt awkward as Hughes listened all but silently to experts. The treatment feminised the past: it is veiled and mysterious, but might be available to us with the right chat-up line.
The series claimed to document, from the Mesolithic to AD 1700, the ‘struggle between man and his environment’, an unforgivable phrase. Both the use of ‘man’ and the image of our violent grapple with nature are inadequate. Did not ‘man’ understand ‘his’ environment, working with it in endlessly fascinating ways? Intellectually this was a muddle, from ‘diffusionism’ to ‘cultural adaptation to environments’ to ‘post-processual’ symbolic interpretations. Occasionally, though, it succeeded: asserting Britain as a land of economic migrants was a bold attempt to politicise archaeology.
Competing desires of archaeologist (consultant Mick Aston) and programme makers were ill-concealed. In the first instalment academic language was offset by a sensationalist focus on tools and weaponry. There were serious gaps in the prehistoric narrative (Neolithic Britain without pottery, henges or enclosures—notwithstanding film of an Iron Age hill fort?). We learnt there are several possible explanations for the flint marks on excavated human bones; only cannibalism was identified.
Seven Ages was undoubtedly epic, included some fine camerawork and marked a refreshing change from the showy computer-generated images that dominate so much of this genre. But where was the hook? The flair and individuality? What was Seven Ages saying that has not been said many times before?
TV in BA is written by Rosemary Armitage, Sean Caveille, Jessie Colmer, Lorna Dadds, Shevaun Fergus, Kathleen Fox, Heidi Hollis, Louise Ord and Edward Richardson with Angela Piccini
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005