When I put that on the cover of British Archaeology above a photo of Mick Aston in February, I left it deliberately ambiguous. Mick was leaving Time Team – but what about Time Team itself?
Now it’s official. Attempts to fiddle about with the 18-year-old format are deemed to have failed, and in the wake of that and confusing scheduling (always a sign that a broadcaster’s heart isn’t in it), Channel 4 has announced that it’s killing off Time Team.
It doesn’t actually use those words, and its press release naturally praises the series and promises more to come. But next year’s series, the 20th, will be the final one with three-day digs. That’s big for archaeology, and big for broadcasting.
Twenty years is a long time for a TV series, especially a factual one. And as well as the standard programmes, there were seemingly endless specials. The series generated a vast number of what we archaeologists call grey evaluation reports. It featured so many practising archaeologists, that the profession has developed what must be a unique accommodation with television. Time Team educated and inspired, and brought many people into archaeology, to study at university and even to work as archaeologists.
It also found new archaeology, and created new stories. As C4’s head of factual Ralph Lee says, “I am incredibly proud that, as well as providing hundreds of hours of education and entertainment on Channel 4, Time Team has invested, over and above production costs, more than £4m in archaeology in Britain over the past 18 years.” Where else in broadcasting can you find that?
There is a part of me that wonders if this might be the right decision for Time Team. The failure of the silly stuff in this year’s series was never going to be rectified by going back to Time Team in the 20th century. Yet it’s that that people love. The TT legacy is going to be strong, and not allowed to dissipate into embarrassing farce. There are books, broadcastable films and DVDs, press and magazine features and the famous excavation reports to fuel debate about archaeology and broadcasting for generations.
Tim Taylor created something very special, and has every right to be proud of it all. Long live Time Team.
Programmes will feature the Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Wiltshire excavated by soldiers in Operation Nightingale; the Roman fort at Brancaster, Norfolk, where geofizz really came up trumps; a Tudor mansion at Henham Park, Suffolk; the remains of Cardinal Wolsey’s home; castles in west Wales, Northern Ireland and Rutland; an iron age hillfort on the edge of Cardiff; a Roman villa on the banks of the Thames; and Elizabethan copper mines in the Lake District.
There will be four Time Team Specials: the sunken wrecks of two of the earliest prototype submarines from before the First World War; Lincoln Castle; reconstructing the bronze age Dover Boat using materials and tools from the time; and an investigation into the tsunami that swept across the North Sea some 8,000 years ago.
C4 says “further one-off specials are planned for at least into 2014 and the series will continue to be repeated across both More4 and Channel 4”.
The release also plays up the channel’s other “new history” programmes. These include The People of Stonehenge (working title) for early 2013, featuring our Aubrey Hole excavation at Stonehenge (and possibly me), and Darlow-Smithson’s film about the Richard III car park dig. You can’t but admire Darlow’s ownership of that, and what will surely be one of the season’s most watched films, in says C4, er, “early 2012”.
He feels, he says, that the Time Team format has “gradually been changed” (note, not just “changed”) into emphasising a documentary style, moving away from “Time Team’s core DNA. This centres on the moment that we see archaeology emerging from the ground for the first time and the team battling against a limited timescale, using their intelligence and skill to work out the right strategy to answer key questions.”
“Over the last decade”, he continues, “the size of the production and the staff needed to support it and the budget has grown to an unsustainable level. On the final show of last year we had over 75 people in the lunch tent! For the first 5-10 years of Time Team it used to be just Mick, Phil, the cameraman, the Director and me in the pub! In my view this size of production made it harder to get in touch with the key archaeological events.”
He wants to “get back to that immediacy of discovery”. He plans “Dig Village” shoots with Mick as a guide, and featuring Stewart Ainsworth, Paul Blinkhorn and others; a pilot will “be seen on the internet in early November”.
He also hopes to return to some old Time Team sites, in “the Time Team ‘Legacy’ Roadshow”.
See my posts about Mick leaving, and the media coverage: