Monday, 25 March 2013

Digging Deeper: Whatever Happened to 'Time Team'?

With the last ever episode aired last night, barring a few special editions, I still can't understand why Time Team had to end.

I grew up watching Time Team. It was part of my Sunday evening TV as a child. As I grew older I would come home from working in a café on a Sunday and watch it whilst making dinner. I didn't see much of it whilst at university, (lack of working television is definitely a factor here), but with catch-up websites such as 4oD, there was never really that much of an excuse.

But even to me, it feels like a show that belongs in the 1990s, with garish jumpers, scruffy hair and trips to the pub. Like watching Last of the Summer Wine, but with a factual element. (Not to say that these features didn't make it great at the time; they were part of its character).

Reading an article in The Guardian, it seems like Channel 4 had just run out of patience with the show. They gave it some (I'd like to think) well-meaning last-ditch attempts at hiking up its viewing figures: the establishment of the Time Team club, where one lucky member a month could take part in a dig, adding a new presenter, trying to 'jazz up' the format (and losing Mick Aston as a result). 

1.5 million viewers was apparently not high enough, having reached a peak of 2.5 million in 2008 (compared to repeated episodes of shows like Come Dine with Me reaching 1 million viewers during the day time). But after 5 years of attempting re-vamping, was cancelling the series really the best decision?

Mick Aston accused the show of "dumbing down" and "pratting about", which really did seem to be the problem with some of the newer episodes. In my opinion, it wasn't that people found the old format unintelligible, it was that the show had all the edge of a well-used trowel and had just become boring and predictable, regardless of the site upon which they were working.

It wasn't that the show needed more glitz and glamour to increase viewing numbers; the essential format worked and archaeology shows remain popular, as the BBC has found out. What was missing was the excitement and relevance that comes with archaeology in the 2010s:

  • There are breakthroughs in archaeology (both academic and practical) every day, exciting excavations and reconstructions such as the recent work on Richard III are just part of that, and it seems such a shame that Channel 4 is closing this window on the archaeological world. Time Team lost its relevance because it existed in its 90s bubble, without reference to the rest of the archaeological world.
  • Time Team did not need to be just a three-day long dig; as a generalisation the most interesting finds only came up on the third day, by which time the Team had cleared off to the pub. Why was the show not made longer, so that we could really see what that entire Iron Age village might have looked like?
  • Experimental and reconstruction archaeology has become a Big Thing. And who doesn't enjoy seeing how things were made in ancient times? Ever see Two Men in a Trench, which pushed Neil Oliver onto our tv screens? It was ridiculous, but I learned things, and I loved it!
  • There are incredible excavations going on in Britain throughout the year. Vindolanda, York, Dorchester (hey, I like Romans). I don't remember local museums, local relevant digs or anything like that coming in to the show. Local societies were featured, but only because they asked the Team there in the first place.
  • And why not feature some of the archaeologists as individuals and names? I wanted to know who these people were, how they became archaeologists and how they knew how to use a trowel. 
For me, as one of those missing viewers after 2008, Time Team had lost its relevance.

The Daily Mail referred to Time Team as "Tony Robinson's archaeology series". Is that all it ever was? Tony Robinson was certainly a lead figure, and we can't expect him to continue presenting a series forever. After years of watching the series, I began to find his presenting manner irritating. His foolish style was no longer amusing, and I began to believe that after his many years on the show, that he had learned nothing about the field. And perhaps that is what the Channel 4 producers had forgotten about the viewers; we learned and grew up alongside Time Team, and many of us have dabbled in archaeology because of it.

So, Channel 4, I put it to you: where is our archaeology programme? What will you fill our viewing hours with instead? Why not start again, without Tony Robinson, and with real archaeologists, excavating sites that have real relevance? Why not, for example, see a dig through all the way to the end? And why not give an archaeology programme the chance to capture the hearts and minds of the next generation of wannabe archaeologists?

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