Thursday, 9 February 2012

Time up?

I've been watching Time Team since the first episode in January 1994 when they went in search of  what might have been King Alfred's base in what would then have been the Somerset marshes around Athelney. Physically, I'm not sure what they found, probably not very much, but that didn't matter because the producers had stumbled on TV gold dust. That came in the format '... and we have just three days to find out' and the chemistry between the team, which took a little longer  to gel.

Tony Robinson, who had made an indelible name for himself as Baldrick in Blackadder, was the front man. His enthusiasm for history oozed from the screen (the first time I'd seen him on TV was reciting a monologue for children, Odysseus, the Greatest Hero of Them All). He cheerfully admitted he didn't know a thing about archaeology ... but he knew a couple of people who did. They came in the form of the wild-haired, rainbow-jumpered Professor Mick Aston, and granite-jawed, beer-swilling digging machine Phil Harding. If I remember rightly, relations between them at the start were a bit stiff, but over the years Time Team turned into a sort of cheery archaeology-loving family who visited your living room on a Sunday night.

In those early years, the search for archaeological evidence and historical truth was the be all and end all of Time Team. It was a niche programme for history lovers who salivated over the churned up remains of Roman mosaics and the slightly darker stain in the earth that might be a Saxon post hole. Nobody was all that bothered about building a big viewing audience.

But that audience came, and with it came changes. Time Team turned a bit tabloid. The three day format remained, Phil got a bit more to say, the geo-phys team got better equipment, Stewart got to go up in a helicopter, but now they were expected to have revelations and come to conclusions. I began to get a bit annoyed when Guy de-la-very-posh-Roman-expert would look at a bit of pottery and tell the world that it changed our whole outlook on Roman history, when it patently didn't, or Francis Pryor studied a hole in the ground and turned it into a neolithic temple, despite there being no real evidence for the claim.

You could tell things were getting strained when Mick would tetchily turn to Robinson and say 'no, it doesn't mean that at all. It might mean it, but it might not'. And in the latest season, the straw that broke the Samian ware dish: Mary-Anne Ochota, a very scenic archaeologist and former model, with a nice smile, brought in to co-present with Tony and bring a bit of glamour, as the producers, in Aston's words as he announced his decision to quit the show, decided to 'cut down the informative stuff about archaeology'.

I don't like the new format as much. I know TV shows have to move on and do things differently, but it's all a bit too forced and there's a desperation to find things that aren't there. Earnest and often po-faced, Mick Aston brought the gravitas and genuine learning to the show that kept me and history lovers like me watching for almost twenty series. There have been other changes over the years, but without him I'm not sure Time Team will be Time Team. I met Tony Robinson once, when he opened a dinosaur exhibition, (don't ask!) and he seemed a very likeable, easy going chap. I have a feeling he might be thinking the same.


Martin Kielty said...

Aston says the majority of the production team feel the new format hasn't worked; and although they're going to change it again, they're not necessarily changing it back. That's management for you – change for change's sake to prove your own worth, although most often, you prove the opposite.

TBH I long since stopped finding it essential viewing. Along with the insistence, everywhere nowadays, that every wee detail is a game-changer, they settled on the notion that everyone cares about the Romans because the Romans were nearly everywhere. Coming from just north of the Antonine Wall (before the Gask Frontier was fully understood) I was of the perception that studying Roman history is a bit like studying England history –– fascinating in its own way, but not what I want to know about.

Sometimes they'd get excited about digging further down and finding Saxon stuff, which I liked; but Roman was easy, and easy doesn't make gripping telly.

There's also the fact they changed the game themselves. The image of archaeology and indeed historical fiction have been transformed in the past two decades, and Time Team must take a good deal of credit for that.

But just because you start something doesn't mean you're able to evolve with it. I think of the almost laughable 1970s British TV cop shows, put to shame by the hard-edged Kojak – then matched by The Sweeney, admittedly.

Time Team waits for no man. The format may have been tired, but that's not to say a new one will work easily…

Geoff Carter said...

Nice piece Doug,
I have not been able to watch it regularly for some time, - it is not a program aimed at archaeologists.
There have been major excavations that cost less than their Range Rover.
I have always found the time constraints an artificial contrivance [ - We have to take you appendix out and we have only given the doctor 20 minutes to do it - how exciting].
The laughable 'Durrington Walls special' neatly encapsulated all that is wrong with intellectual culture of British archaeology.
Never-the-less, I might view the loss of Prof Aston, and his replacement with a less experienced, but more attractive model, as not good new for the quality of the program, although it my have the desired effect on the viewing figures.

Geoff Carter said...

Stop Press;
Mary-Ann Ochota has quit as well!!

[sorry about the dyslexic previous comment above]