Time Team

I don’t know if this popular programme on archaeology, a 20 year British institution, has made it across the Atlantic, though I’ve seen it on satellite TV across the world. It’s hit the headlines because one of its original team, Brummy archaeologist Prof Mick Aston , has left in anger because of decisions made by Channel 4, the commissioners of the programme:

They included a new presenter to join Tony Robinson and decisions to ‘drop some archaeologists’ and ‘cut down the informative stuff about the archaeology’.

Time Team is (or was) unique, in that it genuinely attempted to popularise a science of great relevance to a country as rich in archaeology as the UK. By accident or design, it hit on the formula of using real (and publically unknown) archaeologists who, by virtue of being what they were, were hugely interesting. Aston, the Einstein-haired Midland-accented prof in a trademark striped jumper and hat – an atheist obsessed with mediaeval monasteries. Even scruffier field archaeologist Phil Harding, adept at flint knapping and apt to exclaim in a deep Dorset accent at every opportunity, “Cor, looka that!” And a variable, slightly less eccentric but equally erudite collection of geophysicists, landscape archaeologists, historians, pottery experts and so on.

The coup was to have the programme fronted by Tony Robinson, famous as the downtrodden Baldrick in the comedy Blackadder. He came across as (and probably was, to begin with) the genuinely interested layman asking stupid questions about why a dirty piece of pottery was important. The fact that he also projected the image of the organiser of each dig, running around feverishly after buried treasure whilst his experts stubbornly stuck to the science, made him representative of the viewer, who could view him as a canny idiot (Baldrick) whilst actually asking their own questions through him.

Naturally enough, this format became deliberate as the years progressed: Mick’s stripes, Phil’s beer and Tony’s importunity became scripted in because they worked, as did the set-piece rivalry between the geophysicists and the diggers, the geeky introspection of landscape archaeologist Stewart Ainsworth’s lone rambles through undergrowth etc.

But the key thing is that it was a genuine attempt to popularise serious science, despite the objections of many in the archaeological community about the artificial restriction of three-day digs, the untypical resource-richness and, at least initially, the use of the devilish metal-detector. Academic corners were of course cut, but keen viewers – and it’s the kind of show that only has keen viewers – gradualyy learned a lot both about their history and the science. Finds, it is true, were more often shown than the mundane recording of stratigraphy; but the latter was sometimes highlighted, and it was very frequently referred to as a matter of course (“They’re just going to record this trench now before closing it down.”)

But as ever in our shallow society, the formula is not good enough for the TV executives. Maybe ratings are dropping – I don’t know. But if so, it is only after 20 years of previous growth. It worked.

The only answer media people ever have is to throw in the usual Meeja suspects: first of all, import more sex appeal (the new presenter, though archaeologically trained, was a former model and was not hired to ask sensible questions from her knowledge-base, but stupid ones – she has now resigned too, which is a sign of her intellectual integrity, I think).

Second, the remove some of those embarrassingly unglamorous genuine archaeologists.

And third, of course, dumb down the content, which “some people”, surveys no doubt show, might not understand. No, of course not – if the public wants buried treasure and glamour, let us never forget we’re in the entertainment business.

In other words, the purpose changes from the desire to popularise a subject – in this case archaeology – to the desire to find something on which to practise the popularisation process. Mick Aston compares it to another UK programme called Countryfile, which in 2008 replaced most of its team with young and, of course, glamorous presenters and has since become a programme about townies visiting the countryside rather than aboiut the country itself.

One could also cite a programme called Masterchef, in which originally mild Bostonian Lloyd Grossman oversaw ordinary people cooking extraordinary food, and judging the results seriously with expert chefs. That, too, wasn’t good enough for Today’s Viewer – and it has become a clone of Dragon’s Den and every US reality show, where agressive hosts line up the competitors to tell them it’s going to be “Tough, really tough,” as if they were competing to join the marines, and where those who fail have to account for their feelings of despair because they “Really wanted it“. Tears help – so much so that they are scripted in.

My last example is a drama – the long-running low-budget Police series The Bill, which excelled because it showed believeable characters doing real work – sometimes low level, sometimes risky, but always varied because that’s what real life is like, and what real people are like. In other words, it was popularising the job of policing. But when it was decided to Do Popularisation instead, it was necessary for all the crime to be serious, for the officers to become violent alcoholics, corrupt, or stealing their colleague’s spouses. In other words, it became every other soap, with the cut-outs wearing blue uniforms rather than white hospital coats or sharp suits. And so nobody learns anything any more, except what they think they know already.

I have my own outline for a great TV show, in which a team of celebrity undertakers tours the country in an Edwardian hearse planning personalised funerals for those bereaved but bored with ordinary ceremonies. It’s called Changing Tombs. But somehow I can’t get the TV companies interested. Nobody cares about the real real world.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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