thinking about archaeology

Remembering Timothy Bateson

Timothy Bateson (right) on Windmill Hill, with June Barrie and Martin Friend seated

One of the first things I did after leaving the Alexander Keiller Museum in 1984 was to write an Avebury guidebook. I hoped Shire might publish it, but John Rotheroe thought the market too small (though later he commissioned a guide from another author), so I decided to publish it myself – the start of what became Digging Deeper.

I had to get advance orders before the bank would lend me the money I needed, and two customers made it possible: the National Trust and WH Smith. I still have what in hindsight seems like an extraordinary memo from Richard Handover. He was later to rise to chief executive and then chairman of Smiths, but was then the area manager for Severn and Avon. I took my idea and draft artwork to show him in Swindon, and he ordered 1,000 copies; the memo details how they would be distributed among 10 outlets. There was a time when Smiths supported small, local publishers – and at that point I was still a publisher-to-be.

In February 1985 I printed 15,000 copies of the guide, which I called Footprints through Avebury. One of these I sent to John Knight, producer of a long-running archaeological series on Radio 4 called Origins. On the strength of this he commissioned a drama that told the same story of Avebury, from geological history to the present. It was broadcast as a Sunday Feature on Radio 4 on  January 4 and 7 1987. It all seemed so simple in those days!

I was reminded of this when I read of the death of Timothy Bateson on September 16. Bateson was an actor with a glorious career that took in Olivier’s film of Richard III, Osric to Richard Burton’s Hamlet at the 1953 Edinburgh Festival and many other parts on stage, television, film and radio. He was best known for playing Lucky in Peter Hall’s first English production of Becket’s Waiting for Godot in 1955. And suddenly this great actor with such iconic experiences was part of a team assembled in a cold, windy Avebury to create my first drama.

Unusually for the time, the whole thing was recorded on location (and in experimental binaural stereo, whose effect could be appreciated only through stereo headphones). In one scene the actor playing the Reverend Bryan King (an opinionated 19th century Avebury vicar) was recorded in the pulpit of St James’s in Avebury, with Heather Peak-Garland, the village’s church organist, providing musical accompaniment. As far as I remember, the only recording not made in or around Avebury was the sound of a 1920s car revving up in the grounds of Beaulieu National Motor Museum. We’d planned to tape an actual Hispano-Suiza, the car driven by Alexander Keiller, but its owner Paul McCartney had just taken it out for an over-enthusiastic drive and it had gone in for repair.

Narrators June Barrie and Malcolm Billings in Avebury stone circle, with the binaural stereo head-mounted microphones

Producer John Knight in the stone circle

Timothy Bateson played John Aubrey, the 17th century writer and antiquary (to hilarious effect in a small Avebury cottage), and Victorian polymath and archaeologist Sir John Lubbock. Martin Friend played William Stukeley (18th century antiquarian) and Thomas Kendrick (newly-appointed keeper, in 1938, of the department of British and medieval antiquities at the British Museum); Hugh Dickson played the Reverend King and Keiller, Avebury’s formative archaeologist; and Alan Dudley played John Saunders (an 18th century manservant), Stuart Piggott (a major archaeologist of the last century, and in 1938 a young assistant to Keiller) and an anonymous villager. There were two narrators, played by June Barrie and Malcolm Billings (Malcolm was then the regular presenter on Origins). I remember it all as a very enjoyable few days.

Hugh Dickson on Windmill Hill

Recording inside West Kennet long barrow

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