For the children
tv in ba
Editor Mike Pitts
tv in ba
Try your own Time Team
In our regular TV column tutor Angela Piccini and students on Bristol Universityâ€™s MA in Archaeology for Screen Media review recent programming
Why do we watch archaeology on TV? The answer may seem obvious, but what keep us glued to the screen? Sure, we listen to the scripted content, but pay attention next time to other kinds of sounds (music, background noise), to close ups, long shots and cutaways, to how scenes are woven together through the editing process, to the choice of presenter or voiceover narration.
Time Team divides the archaeological community. Many have firm opinions about this stalwart: but suspend yours a moment while we take you behind the scenes.
Tim Taylor, series producer and contributor to the Bristol MA, emphasises viewing figure power. Presented with a new idea, his first question is â€˜how are you going to keep the viewer interested enough not to switch over?â€™ Commissioners and producers know the exact minute increments they lose or gain audience. Next time you watch Horizon, look for elements included just to keep you from changing channel.
Taylor gave us Time Team rushes (raw footage) and challenged us to create a short scene. We slaved away in the edit studios, pasting together conversations to form a version that never happened, but which made sense. We polished our sequences with as much integrity as we could muster. The result? â€˜Iâ€™m lost. It was too much information. I couldnâ€™t keep up. What is the point of the scene? Say that and get rid of the rest.â€™
Tony Robinson is such a successful presenter because he focuses discussion onto the points that matter. He summarises the expertâ€™s extended treatise. He argues from the corner of doubt. He probes for information, speaks for the sceptic and draws the audience with him without being patronising. And he keeps us watching.
Archaeologists might dislike his swift summaries. Yet when Taylor showed us a pilot for a different project, we understood why it had not been aired: the step-by-step interpretation and lack of a dynamic presenter made the programme difficult to watch. It is amazing what you miss when it is taken away. We would have switched over.
So the need to retain viewers has a clear effect on how television, and therefore archaeology, is produced. How did the past two monthsâ€™ offerings captivate audiences yet remain intellectually credible?
One presenter in charge of the story was Terry Jones in his Medieval Lives. Ex-Python with degree in Medieval Studies, Jones has made a new name for himself. In this short series he set out to rescue the Middle Ages from the clichÃ©s of knights, damsels and monks.
In the first of eight programmes he explored peasant life. Whilst reliant on documentary sources, Jones also used skeletal remains and a reconstructed Medieval village to show that peasants did not have it so bad, comfortably enjoying good wine.
Medieval Lives certainly scores for originality. The Middle Ages literally became animated. Stepping into Medieval paintings that moved with an unmistakably â€˜Pythonesqueâ€™ feel, Jones took cover from testosterone-riddled knights and fled as a pursued outlaw. He even dressed as a fickle damsel: he takes neither himself nor subject matter too seriously.
Despite the occasional expert, the programme made no attempt at â€˜academicâ€™ balance. Jones enjoyed dispelling accepted views, but the hyperbole meant the contrast of extremes made his case more than anything else. His personalised story-telling turned out to be both the seriesâ€™ charm and its complication.
BBC 2â€™s Ancestorsâ€”Julian Richardsâ€™ vehicle, Meet the Ancestors, refashionedâ€”employed straight-to-camera presenting and voiceover narration, not always with the best results. Richards went from Patagonia (Saturday 28 February 20.10, producer/director Nigel Paterson) to Oxford (20 March 21.30, producer/director Jan Klimkowski) investigating tantalising mysteries. Sickly sea voyages, blustery beaches and ungainly geophys equipment lugged through Essex marshes mud exemplified the dedication of local archaeologistsâ€™ six-year search for Darwinâ€™s Beagle. The shock value of the mutilated and quickly buried bodies outside Oxford prison was played up with historical records and recreations of the misery of 16th century life. Richards is always engaging but the stories are looking threadbare. Heavy on filler, light on content and lacking concrete conclusions, the Richards format has lost much of its sparkle.
Wednesday night is history night on Five. The True Story (20.00) was a compilation of programmes reworked (and often significantly shortened) from their original American formats, harmonised with new narration by Steven Rashbrook. Intriguing searches for Hitlerâ€™s bunker (17 March, director Gail Ridge for Termite Art Productions) or Atlantis (24 March, director/producer Nick Jones for Atlantic Productions) were disappointing rehashes. Computer reconstructions could not replace the resonance of real physical objects.
Capturing better the viewerâ€™s imagination was the Revealed series at 21.00, featuring 20th century archaeology. The voiceover focused on the dynamic investigative teams, experts and personal stories. We joined Mediterranean divers as they searched for the cause of massive Titanic sister ship Brittaniaâ€™s WWI sinking (24 March, producer/directors Peter Davey and James Barker for Carlton TV). American and British archaeologists returned to Stalagluft 3 in Poland to investigate the remains of the Great Escape (17 March, director Ian Duncan for Windfall Films). Revealed had a real archaeological sensibility: the gaping sand pit that was once tunnel â€˜Dickâ€™ communicated all we needed to know about the danger of escape; divers squeezed bulky equipment into the intact wreck of Brittania. These were stories we know, given new life through their material realities. A Klim tin used to dig out the tunnel, a mangled bed covered in seaweed, a forged Nazi rubber stamp: these were not unfamiliar sherds to fit into a digital pot. The objects spoke to us.
Other programmes struggled to reconcile narrative strategies and quality. Dan Cruickshank & the House that Wouldnâ€™t Die (12 February BBC4 on BBC2 24.00, producer/director Jonty Claypole) presented Dennis Seversâ€™ fabulous 18th century homage at 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields. The 22 March Time Team Special: Steel City focused on the Sheffield-wide excavations in advance of serious development. For the first time we felt guests eclipsed the team, as Andy Lines and Jim Symonds showed cutting-edge Post-medieval archaeology, though we missed archaeologist Anna Badcockâ€™s female voice.
In the voiceover genre The National Trust Stonehenge episode (9 March BBC2 21.00, producer/director Patrick Forbes for Oxford Film & Television) was great: the imaginative use of TV-friendly participants and film practice, with interesting frame composition and frequent use of â€˜jump cutsâ€™ really added to the sense of conflict between Trust, English Heritage, the police and worshippers. And while Men of Iron used the ever-present Jim Carter as narrator (the lead in Pompeii, TV in BA, March) other elements creatively exploited the porosity of past and present in this savvy three-part series. Is presenter-led or voiceover factual TV better? That is maybe the wrong question.
TV in BA is written by Lorna Dadds, Kathy Fox and Heidi Hollis, with Angela Piccini
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005