What Is Television Doing for Us? Reflections on Some Recent British Programmes

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Ten years ago archaeology seemed to be disappearing from British television screens, but at present any week will yield half a dozen programmes more or less related to the subject. Why is it so popular and what impact does TV have on the subject? This discussion is based on a partial viewing of a selection of the programmes I could have looked at on the main four British TV channels (plus occasional glimpses of a locally fuzzy Channel 5) in the winter of 2002/3.

Everything from Dinosaurs to D-Day or even Princess Diana is counted as `History' on TV. This can be positive: a visual medium like television cannot rely only on words, but has to use material culture as background and as a part of the story, in ways which contribute to awareness of its role in all periods, however recent. History programmes fall into several different categories, which equate with current genres of TV producing. The early evening lifestyle/leisure slot has homes, gardens, cookery--and archaeology, and at that time of day one can blur into another: How the Life Laundry and Charlie Dimmock can makeover your life by `excavating' it while Nigella Lawson mixes up a prehistoric pudding ... But it would be a mistake to object, these are the things which really matter to and interest most people. This is participation TV, the territory where Time Team operates, and also its imitators--Two Men in a Trench and Time Fliers.

Another style of programme is the travel adventure, which has plenty of stunning scenery and exotic ruins, a disembodied voice-over and guest appearances from assorted specialists; they are often made for American audiences and have a glossy `National Geographic' slant. These are sometimes excellent (Angkor Wat, Easter Island), but can also merge with another category, the Mystery (lost civilisations, ancient catastrophes). Ancient Egypt usually belongs to the two previous categories, if not in a class of its own,--the only `archaeology' programme in a list of top twenty viewing figures in 2002 was `The Pyramid. A third kind of programme is the docu-drama, which descends from Schools History broadcasts, replete with re-enactors of all kinds--ferocious Vikings, horribly dying plague victims, Romans being burnt in Nero's fire or wandering strangely in the modern ruins of Pompeii. These overlap with the traditional illustrated lecture, scorned by TV producers for years, which has made a dramatic comeback in the wake of David Starkey and Simon Schama--this also uses actors and scenery to divert from the usually male middle-aged face on view. Probably the programmes which archaeologists themselves like most are those which do not fit exclusively in any of the above categories, except possibly the illustrated lecture. These deal with specific topics in some depth and are presented by people who know something about the subject, usually with a supporting cast of `experts' (ourselves!).

Why is there such an upsurge in media interest in a subject which is actually under threat in the English national curriculum? History has been taught in school for years now, less as dead politics, more as dead people, whose lives can be recreated and re-enacted. Many people are willing to spend their spare time dressed up as a Roman or seventeenth century soldier, some are even willing to `live in the past' for weeks on end for TV: and watching a programme appeals to many more without quite that degree of commitment. Television is reflexive: programmes are made because it is thought the viewers will like and watch them--but in fact they also create interest in subjects people might not have known about before.

What has television done for archaeologists? The place to start has to be Time Team which recently showed a ten year `retrospective' reviewing its programmes (C4 27.12.02). One lesson was that the ingredients turned out to be a better mixture than had appeared in the pilot programme. Because of its success it has acquired larger resources which have in turn increased its potential. …