Is this the greatest Stonehenge film ever made?
Perhaps not (though no obvious other candidates spring to mind) but it’s worth asking. What it certainly is, is quite different from any Stonehenge film you will see made today. In fact it’s so different, the very comparison is an object lesson in thinking and communicating about the past, and in broadcasting history.
I’ve just watched Paul Johnstone’s 30-minute 1954 film for the BBC TV series Buried Treasure, called, simply, Stonehenge. It’s in black and white, of course, and it mixes studio talk with outdoor film sequences. It’s powerfully different from a modern film.
Now, we get ordered to believe – to the accompaniment of dramatic but stale film sequences and lots of noise, as if someone had opened the Stonehenge cupboard and everything had fallen out on us – that a new film will change the way we think about Stonehenge; that it shows a new explanation that kills dead everything else.
Then, we got a Cambridge don in a bow tie – not a sunset or megalith in sight! – saying, in immaculate diction, “Good evening. Our programme tonight is about a monument which is one of the wonders of the prehistoric world of western Europe – Stonehenge.”
Not “the”, but “a monument”… not “the”, but “one of the wonders”… not “the world”, not even “Europe”, but “western Europe”… No sensationalism here, as the programme strikes out confidently in a style that blends a Cambridge tutorial with the darker recesses of Radio 3.
It’s quite wonderful! For the “ordinary viewer”, as presenter Glyn Daniel used to call us, the film gives something that no other film about Stonehenge I’ve ever watched does: that is quite simply, an idea of what Stonehenge is. Not a health spa, a celebration of ancestors, an astronomical computer, a monumental lichen-spattered vagina – but Stonehenge. We get to see the way the stones are carved, with details of joints and faces, models showing how it was built, experiments in moving stones, all for no reason other than these are things we might like to know about. It’s extraordinary.
Imagine this was a natural history film, made in 1954. Not an inappropriate thing to do, as David Attenborough was even then helping to make Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?, an archaeological quiz show also presented by Glyn Daniel. In the same year, Attenborough presented the first Zoo Quest films. These too mixed outdoor filming and studio talk. When we watch Attenborough today, the sounds and pictures around him are radically different, and breathtaking – but otherwise, the films are really quite similar. They show a distinguished communicator describe the world with knowledge and enthusiasm. Somewhere since 1954 television ceased to trust its audience to find ancient worlds, in their own rights, interesting.
To be fair, Johnstone’s film has its moments of longeur. We see Richard Atkinson and Stuart Piggott talk to Daniel. None of them is quite sure how they should behave in a studio, they look nervous and self conscious. Daniel plays the eager but ignorant presenter, but you never quite believe it when he says, in effect, golly, professor, I didn’t know that – you suspect that actually he did (as he did).
For archaeologists who know Stonehenge well, or knew these men when they looked less youthful, or indeed didn’t know them at all, this film has many moments to treasure.
In the outdoor sequences, we get several glimpses of the excavations that Atkinson and Piggott were directing, and of which we still know less than we should.
We see the newly discovered dagger carving, looking so fresh we wonder how on earth noone had seen it before?
We see Stonehenge in the round before the major restoration work that began in 1958. We see a boggling piece of experimental archaeology, in which – I couldn’t believe it when I first saw it, and now I can watch it over and over I still wonder if I’m seeing what I think I’m seeing – a man takes a prehistoric stone maul excavated at Stonehenge, and with it bashes a fallen sarsen megalith, at Stonehenge, to show us what a lot of effort it takes to create a pool of stone dust. And look, there is the newly powdered white dust.
And, to confirm our modern prejudices about British archaeology in the 1950s, the question “Why?” – “Why was Stonehenge constructed?” – is asked 24 minutes into a 30-minute film. Piggott takes exactly two minutes to answer, and back to the don. But really, in his succinct, clear way, Piggott says just about all we still say today. Not forgetting, of course, that it had nothing to do with modern Druids.
On the dust jacket of Paul Johnstone’s book of the series, Buried Treasure (Phoenix House 1957: does anyone know who the man above on the left is, in the book’s frontispiece?), it says: “Most television programmes are here and – it is their nature – are gone. A few deserve the permanence of book form. Buried Treasure is one of these…” But thanks to the BBC, the Stonehenge film is also preserved, and we can watch it, along with many other delights, on their archive pages, gone no more.