–ve on Bonekickers


Bonekickers has limped to the end of its run and after an epic quest which spanned four thou­sand years and half a dozen major finds, Gillian Magwilde finally acheived her quest in an mad­cap man­ner which sealed Bonekickers in the pan­theon of British tele­vi­sion along­side such clas­sics as Triangle (a drama based on the glam­or­ous and sexy world of North Sea Ferries) and Eldorado. It’s as if the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation had decided to write a drama as the super­fi­cial flaws seem to obscured some people’s views of the fun­da­mental flaws in the series.

Spoilers, and I’m using the word quite wrongly, follow.

The story arc was the quest for Excalibur which cropped up in one form or another each week. To what extent this was a rev­el­a­tion is hard to say. I ima­gine the audi­ence was divided between those who knew exactly what to expect and those who couldn’t believe the plot could be as shal­low as that. Personally I don’t have a prob­lem with that per se. If Indiana Jones can go raid­ing lost arks, then why not have someone go after Excalibur. The prob­lem is that a drama at least needs internal logic. The writers tried to sup­ply that, but they were left with the prob­lem of how to get Excalibur from Bath to Wells Cathedral, a dis­tance of twenty miles. The answer was:

The Knights Templar took it with them to Portugal around the time the Portuguese were explor­ing the West African coast. From here a black man, Oran, got it. He was enslaved and shipped to America where he fought, with his sword, along­side George Washington against the British. He was shipped to Britain after the war was won and he escaped around the Bristol Channel, where the sword washed up and was taken by someone whose name I can’t be bothered to look up to Wells.

The second epis­ode was built around the sheer injustice, which is still often down­played, of the slave trade. Millions died. The idea that Oran had Excalibur makes even less sense than the idea that Africans enjoyed being slaves, because you could hear them singing. Contrary to what Scotty says, when it comes drama you can change the laws of Physics but you can­not change the laws of nar­rat­ive flow. Unfortunately the final epis­ode was up against an avalanche.

The cli­max, for want of a bet­ter word, was when a bad­die took excalibur and attacked the heroine with it. It broke in his hands and to let the audi­ence know this was a Significant Thing, Magwilde explained how it had sur­vived four mil­lenia before it broke in his hands. This utterly failed because when you’re burn­ing the True Cross, blow­ing up the remains of Boudicca or los­ing the bones of Jeanne d’Arc to traitor from the Army, a broken sword really isn’t a big deal. At least you still have the bits. If you’ve spent five weeks show­ing that the loss of major arte­facts doesn’t mat­ter, then why on earth would you expect any­one to care by epis­ode six? It’s as if they simply couldn’t care less, and the tim­ing on the script told them they needed to resolve the story some­how. The need to get the job done would explain how the bad­die died.

The death of the Bad Guy at the end of a drama is usu­ally about a moral judge­ment, and it’s more ham­fis­ted in Bonekickers than usual. After telling Magwilde tells him that he isn’t the man for Excalibur, he jumps into the pond Magwilde had just swum out of and dis­ap­pears. I sup­pose you could argue that dis­solv­ing the bad guy in cathed­ral pond is an ori­ginal end, but see­ing as Magwilde was show­ing no ill-effects there’s that nar­rat­ive con­tinu­ity prob­lem again. The remain­ing eleven masked men get the mes­sage through the col­lect­ive uncon­scious and decided to turn their back on evil and set up a flor­ists’ shop in Glastonbury. Possibly. Actually we never find out what hap­pens to them.

For all of the above you simply can­not blame Mark Horton, which is why I find the com­plaints dir­ec­ted at him about the many, many inac­curacies tedi­ous. It would be a bit like get­ting agit­ated about the police using the wrong form to take a con­fes­sion in Murder She Wrote. I can­not see, des­pite some claims by other archae­olo­gists, that Bonekickers has dimin­ished archae­ology in any way. If you look at com­plaints by the pub­lic it’s not archae­ology both­ers them. The pub­lic love archae­ology and that’s why they’re annoyed Graham and Pharoah have done such an awful job with it. The first epis­ode was sadly the high point.

It’s been fas­cin­at­ing watch­ing it, but then people slow down to gawp at car crashes.

+ve on Bonekickers


To cla­rify, I am not being at all sar­castic when I say I’m pos­it­ive about Bonekickers. The first epis­ode wasn’t bril­liant, but first epis­odes of any series tend to be poor because not only are they intro­du­cing a story, they’re intro­du­cing char­ac­ters. The entire first sea­son of Star Trek:TNG and DS9 are poor, but with char­ac­ters estab­lished they improved massively. The per­petual prob­lem with new Doctor Who is that each series intro­duces a new assist­ant or new Doctor which causes prob­lems for devel­op­ing stor­ies. So in light of that, the cur­rent shal­low­ness of the char­ac­ters in Bonekickers is understandable.

It would also be easy to go through and pick every point that made me laugh dur­ing the show. I could do the same for 1960s era Batman. Like pick­ing apart Batman I’m not sure there’d be much point to it. There are some prob­lems though. There are cer­tain assump­tions about real­ity which have to hold. It might be pos­sible to have a Bat-microscope which can view inside atoms, but you can bet Batman will have to use his open eye to view it. Similarly there are cer­tain basic archae­olo­gical assump­tions and this clip shows where they get it wrong.

The line about ‘get in the trench or out of it’ is an echo of what had been said to the archae­olo­gist earlier in the show. That’s not been com­men­ted on much because the bit where they yank out the wood has caused howls of deri­sion. I think this is fair because prior to this jar­gon and tech­nobabble was get­ting dropped to show how they were ser­i­ous archae­olo­gists. The pub­lic know that wood rots and this isn’t plaus­ible. My reac­tion would be if it’s the holy cross then surely all bets are off, but people don’t think like that. There have to be some basic found­a­tions which the drama is built on and this scene breaks them.

That aside, if you look at the assump­tions Bonekickers uses then it’s actu­ally very pos­it­ive towards archae­ology. The pro­gramme shows arche­olo­gists in a largely flat­ter­ing light. They appear almost nor­mal. The reason the Head of the Department is odi­ous is that real archae­olo­gists don’t go chas­ing media atten­tion. This comes up a couple of times.

The tech­nobabble emphas­ises that this is a men­tally demand­ing pro­fes­sion. Often engin­eers or bio­lo­gists in TV shows are shown giv­ing things their best guess. In con­trast the archae­olo­gists in this series Know What They Are Talking About. They have a wide range of skill sets, but this is the basis of how they know stuff rather than just mak­ing it up.

Two of the four cent­ral char­ac­ters are from eth­nic minor­it­ies. I don’t know of a single archae­olo­gical depart­ment in the UK that has more than one non-white lec­turer. I would be delighted if that’s down to my ignor­ance rather an accur­ate reflec­tion of real­ity. Nonetheless uni­ver­sit­ies as a whole and archae­ology in par­tic­u­lar are strug­gling to recruit ethnic-minorities onto courses, which isn’t going to help rep­res­ent­a­tion at staff levels.

The assump­tions aren’t all help­ful. Bonekickers lives in its own fin­an­cial uni­verse so the lab, which serves the same func­tion as the Batcave or Torchwood Hub, is amaz­ingly well equipped. This is prob­ably a dra­matic neces­sity. Carbon dates and post-ex ana­lysis needs to be sup­plied fast to keep the story mov­ing, but that means that Wessex University must have a bot­tom­less pit of money for the archae­ology depart­ment. It’s also amus­ing that the lead char­ac­ter lives on Bath’s Royal Crescent. This must mean she’s inde­pend­ently wealthy, but there’s also the assump­tion that the work­ers have a reas­on­able wage, which many field archae­olo­gists will find hard to swal­low.

There are oddit­ies. The insist­ence that they have an archae­olo­gical con­sult­ant seems a bit po-faced. Thanks to Daniel Petts at the PAS, I know Mark Horton has been say­ing what his role was. Star Trek also has sci­entific con­sult­ants who they ask about phys­ics before decid­ing the prob­lem can be solved by run­ning warp power through the deflector. I don’t think they make a big deal of it though. On the plus side next week’s epis­ode might bear some resemb­lance to a pro­ject Mark Horton has been work­ing on con­cern­ing a ship found in the Bristol chan­nel. That sounds like a way of get­ting the polit­ical implic­a­tions of archae­ology out for dis­cus­sion. He also says that it’s funnier.

They say a good wine critic is judged by the wine he rejects. Certainly the safe option would be to pan Bonekickers and thus imply that my work is far super­ior. Perhaps there are med­ics who berat­ing Green Wing for its unreal­ism. I think that would be miss­ing the point and the same goes for Bonekickers. It’s not an out-and-out com­edy but I don’t think it is meant to be entirely ser­i­ous either, else it’d be called some­thing like The Unsilent Grave.

Stonehenge Decoded?


I saw it and it was like the Curate’s Egg, good in parts.

The big idea is some­thing Mike Parker Pearson has been push­ing for a long while. Stonehenge is a place for the dead, and import­ant in funer­ary rites. I’ve been wary of this. An astro­nomer thought it was a giant obser­vat­ory. A Gynaecologist recently pub­lished it was a birth canal. It’s no great shock to dis­cover that a spe­cial­ist in buri­als thinks it was asso­ci­ated with buri­als. What marks out Mike Parker Pearson’s work are two key differences.

One is that he’s been patiently gath­er­ing data to sup­port his idea. While not always strongly suc­cess­ful, he’s not really had a major prob­lem with the data for­cing him into spe­cial plead­ing. The second is that his ideas explain a lot more than Stonehenge and actu­ally say some­thing use­ful about British soci­ety in the 3rd Millennium BC.
Continue read­ing

Extreme Pilgrim and Saint Anthony

Extreme Pilgrim

I’ve been busy recently, so this is only a quick pointer to Extreme Pilgrim which has its third and final epis­ode avail­able on the iPlayer till Thursday even­ing — if you live in the UK. This epis­ode was about Coptic Christianity and espe­cially Saint Anthony who cre­ated the first monastery.

After the first half of epis­ode one I’ve been get­ting more impressed with the series. To begin with Peter Owen-Jones gave the impres­sion of look­ing for a super­fi­cial quick fix to a spir­itual mal­aise. The second epis­ode had him work as a Saddhu, a Hindu holy man. His struggle to try and work out what the hell he was sup­posed to be doing could have been a really awful attempt at com­edy. Thankfully he seemed bet­ter pre­pared to get into the spirit of task and genu­inely cared about his rela­tion­ship with the vil­lage where his cave was.

For epis­ode three, he thought he had his strongest chal­lenge. He went to live with a her­mit in the cliff caves over­look­ing the Monastery of Saint Anthony in Egypt. There are prob­lems liv­ing as a her­mit, when you’re her­mit­ing with someone else and a cam­era crew. Fr. Lazarus, his host offered him his cave where he goes when he feels like a her­mit hol­i­day. The film crew leave Pete with a cam­corder to keep a diary and then with­draw to film him occa­sion­ally through a tele­photo lens for three weeks.

I’m not sure this epis­ode worked so well. The pre­vi­ous two epis­odes had him work­ing within a faith which was alien to him. So he was try­ing to make sense of the faith and its rela­tion­ship to the phys­ical exer­cises he was doing. For this epis­ode he’s with Christians and rather than try­ing to under­stand I get the impres­sions that so much of the famili­ar­ity meant he was accept­ing assump­tions rather than think­ing hard about them as he had before.

Nonetheless it’s not a bad epis­ode. If you live out­side the UK you can see some of it on YouTube. This clip needs a bit of set up. He’s vis­ited Fr. Lazarus who’s given him a cave. Fr. Lazarus is con­cerned because he thinks Pete Owen-Jones could be lit­er­ally in for a hellish time. The Bishop of the Monastery con­siders the cliffs too dan­ger­ous for his own monks. Fr. Lazarus has seen many pro­spect­ive her­mits driven from the rocks. He warns his guest the devil is in the cliffs and he will chal­lenge Pete. Lazarus prom­ises to look in on him from time to time, but they are sep­ar­ated by quite a dis­tance. In an emer­gency all Pete has is him­self and his camcorder.

Embedding is dis­abled, so you’ll have to watch the clip at YouTube.

TV nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

Dead television
Photo (cc) Vik Nanda

Architectural his­tory, land­scape his­tory, even coastal his­tory all have their place, but when they so dom­in­ate the ter­rain that his­tory on tele­vi­sion is reduced to an end­less heli­copter shot of the Dover cliffs, then some­thing has gone wrong.

The title is a cheap joke but Tristram Hunt is not a happy bunny. There’s his­tory on the TV that he doesn’t like. “Call it the Restoration effect: a fac­tual pro­gram­ming sched­ule suf­fer­ing from a sur­feit of cosy, insu­lar and often cloy­ing tele­vi­sion.” Yet des­pite this asser­tion Hunt, who has his own TV series to plug, is remark­ably short of tar­gets. The only TV show I can say with cer­tainty that he dis­likes is “The Trench”. From what I briefly saw of it, it was awful but surely it takes more than one pro­gramme to have a surfeit.

One short-cut to cred­ib­il­ity is to have high stand­ards. A top wine critic is taken ser­i­ously for the wines he rejects. Dismissing the par­ti­cip­at­ory his­tory of the hoi polloi is a route to short-term cred­ib­il­ity, but it’s not enough. There needs to be reason behind the cri­tique and des­pite his asser­tion “…tele­vi­sion his­tory, done well, should be more of an ice-bath than a com­fort­ing, warm soak.” he doesn’t say why this is so. It sounds obvi­ous that rig­or­ous his­tory is super­ior to history-lite, but super­ior for what pur­pose?
Continue read­ing

HBO’s Rome: Down with this sort of thing! (Careful now)


[Cross pos­ted to Revise & Dissent]

Rome returns this week on HBO, so per­haps there’ll be a spring or sum­mer show­ing in the UK. However, as Adrian Murdoch says, not every­body is happy. Mediawatch-uk has already com­plained about the pro­gramme, though it’s uncer­tain as to whether any of their mem­bers have seen it yet.

I have to admit I haven’t seen the first whole series yet. I only got the DVD at Christmas and I have a couple of epis­odes to go. However so far I’m enjoy­ing it. I may lose Classics-cred for that, but the scene where Vorenus was offered a dormouse, around a cen­tury after they’d ceased being din­ner items, didn’t ruin the series for me. There are ana­chron­isms but on the whole I think it’s view of Rome is a com­pli­ment to I, Claudius.
Continue read­ing

I may have spotted an inaccuracy in Robin Hood


Robin Hood
What is wrong with this pic­ture? Apart from the fact it isn’t of Marian.

I’ve tried to like the BBC’s new series Robin Hood. I know some people didn’t like it, but I thought the first epis­ode had some redeem­ing fea­tures and I think I’ve been proved right, because they were removed for the second epis­ode. I grudgingly admire the way they’ve sought to hide the poor qual­ity of the story by dis­tract­ing the viewer with truly awful cuts in edit­ing, but it’s not work­ing. Take the shot above for example. In the lead up to this Robin breaks into the Sheriff’s room and threatens him with an arrow. The Sheriff, being Keith Allen, just laughs and sneers because he thinks Robin doesn’t have the guts to kill him. He’s prob­ably right, des­pite all the fight­ing no-one’s died yet. He sig­nals to a sol­dier sneak­ing up behind Robin. In an instant Robin turns round, shoots the guard dead and returns to threaten a now cower­ing Sheriff. The prob­lem is that he didn’t kill the guard. The guard was a Merry Man act­ing dead. To pro­tect him from the arrow he was wear­ing a board over his heart, which you see later hence the shot above.

If the pro­gramme had a plot then this would be called a spo­lier, but fair play to the BBC they’ve done that already.
Continue read­ing