My Lord Essex
Old stones and the sea
Riding into history
The folk that lived in Liverpool
So tyger fierce took life away
Editor Mike Pitts
tv in ba
Sound, camera, spade, action
In our regular TV column tutor Angela Piccini and students on Bristol University’s MA in Archaeology for Screen Media review recent programming
It has been a busy two months for TV archaeology, despite fears of a quiet Christmas. Time Team’s latest has nearly won us over: exposing academic snobbery about media and detailing the impact of competitive tendering prove that self-reflexive film making can also be entertaining. Timewatch’s ‘The Mysteries of the Medieval Ship’ (see Top 5) also focused on networks of archaeological practice, with varied members of the south Wales community collaborating to devise a plausible story. No detectives discovering truth, just people making the best possible decisions through the data they construct along the research journey.
That brings us to the Nebra find in Horizon’s ‘Secrets of the Star Disc’ (see Top 5), with its unsatisfying ‘dirty primitives versus Noble Savages’ structure. Miranda Aldhouse-Green stood out as the one bright spark—though we quibble with her object- as-text analogy—amongst other participants’ outdated claims for Bronze Age brutality, such as Richard Harrison’s startling ‘The only real purpose for them [swords] is to be effective stabbing or slashing weapons against another person … they’re for killing men (sic)’ (transcript at www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2004/stardisctrans.shtml).
What disappointed was that while Horizon’s visual treatment of expert participants, editing rhythms and use of reconstruction are innovative, the voiceovers are now thin and reactionary. The Nebra disc may challenge archaeologists’ powers, but the programme was all too easily deconstructed, its naturalising of dubious, modern-day ideas of human behaviour (men are violent; complex material culture means clever people) obvious.
They call him the most famous steeplejack ever. With his MBE for services to the heritage industry and public broadcasting, the familiar Fred Dibnah made a welcome return in Dig with Dibnah (8 January 2004, BBC2, 20.00, producer/director David Hall for View from the North). For this one-off production Dibnah set about building a replica 100-foot mineshaft, complete with full pit-head gear and steam engine. Focusing on complex mechanical workings, it was a fascinating take on the cultural role of the industrial archaeology of coal mining. Dibnah also eroded the industrial stereotypes of squalor and despair to show us unity, comradeship and pride in collective experience.
The sounds of steam-driven machinery, the scrape of earth, clank of iron and clink of mugs of tea gave us a real sense of access into this world of specialist skills. With none of the ‘talking heads’ usual in the genre and a seemingly light touch from the director, Dibnah felt uncontrived. The experts were a group of ex-miners working with Dibnah, while the Lancashire speech and absence of direct-to-camera presenting created an authentic, down-to-earth feel. Of course, that deliberate lack of televisual artistry is all about convincing us that this is ‘real’, that it has not been orchestrated in any way by the director, camera operators, sound engineers, editors and so on. This distancing of Dibnah from the programme-makers to ally him with the miners worked well: he carried none of the authorial responsibilities of a presenter, and freely aired his un-PC views.
We have to acknowledge the return of the archaeological programme, the unstoppable Time Team. In its first outing (4 January 2004, Channel 4, 17.30) the Team—minus Mick Aston—excavated in the parkland at Syon House, in search of monastic buildings established by Henry V. With dissension in the ranks from the get-go, Phil Harding argued he had found the monastic church whilst visiting geophysics and landscape experts thought they had the remains of a later Tudor garden. This dilemma provided the hook for the programme, and the break-neck-speed dig ultimately tipped the scales to the church theory. Billed as the biggest and most significant monastic find to date this was the Time Team we know and love. The episode certainly started the series with a bang, and full use was made of the three camera crews on this enormous excavation, with plenty of last-minute trenches added to maintain the suspense.
Rumours abound that Time Team is due a makeover, but viewers expecting this here would be disappointed. The Team appears to subscribe firmly to ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. We do not want to rehash old criticisms (some of which are archived at www.jiscmail.ac.uk/lists/britarch.html), and Time Team remains popular despite them. What is interesting is the confident understanding of audience, a product of Time Team’s longevity and its strong ties with the fan base through website, magazine (Trench One) and publicly-oriented projects. The new series winks at its loyal audience by dispensing with lengthy technical explanations and launching straight into the action. A new viewer may well be baffled, but perhaps is not invited to the dig.
In the history market Five bolstered its factual programming with In Search of Emily Bronte (28 December 2003, 17.10, Samphire Productions). This polished half-hour production—a massive improvement on the re-versioned documentaries that once plagued Five—was a breath of fresh air amongst the predictable Christmas fare. Former culture secretary Chris Smith presented with warm enthusiasm; Tim Brearly, GMTV’s Sunday Programme senior political editor, produced/directed with confidence.
Camerawork was quietly bold and painterly, with brooding skies and snow-blanketed moors. The wistful woman standing against rugged English landscape, long hair and coat tails flapping in the wind, made better sense here than in The Seven Ages of Britain (BA February 2004). Smith’s smiling enthusiasm contrasted interestingly with the darkness of Emily’s morbidity and isolation, shown to good effect in the scene where she examined a pit of bird skeletons—Bronte as melancholic archaeologist.
The past was present through a range of voices: Emily herself was resurrected through the dissolve from her cracked portrait (by brother Bramwell) to the aggressively countenanced actress playing her. Depictions of Wuthering Heights ranged from Kate Bush’s song to a Monty Python sketch. Smith’s first adolescent trek to the moors was re-visioned through his old journal so that past and present appeared to occupy the same space. At the same time when visiting the standing remains that purportedly inspired Wuthering Heights, Smith warned of the dangers of looking for too physical a reality for the story.
Now, we hear you saying ‘but how is this archaeology?’ We wanted to end with this programme because its focus on the heritage landscape of Bronte’s moor and use of material culture to build a story allows us to ask what makes a factual programme archaeological. Is it archaeology only if it is about digging things out of the ground? Or can a programme become archaeological if it treats its subject matter with a particular sensitivity to material culture, to the physical traces of our passage through the world? Does a careful use of camera work, sound and editing that focuses on materiality, rather than on the information carried via language in the voiceover, transform a television programme into something profoundly archaeological? As archaeologists we believe that we bring meaning to things—just as things transform how we encounter the world—so perhaps drawing sharp boundaries between factual genres in terms of content, rather than treatment, misses a real archaeological opportunity.
TV in BA is written by Sean Caveille, Jess Colmer and Louise Ord, with Angela Piccini
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005