Friday, 22 December 2017

Michael Wood and John Romer: a slight case of hero worship

They say you should never meet your heroes (actually, that has indeed proved true in at least five cases in my own experience - which I won't go into detail here - at least not till I've finished the Christmas sherry), but I'm pleased to report that, at the BBC History weekends this winter in Winchester and York, I met two of my own personal archaeo-historic heroes, Michael Wood and John Romer, and was very glad that I did.

Michael has written and presented many TV programmes, but it was his In Search of series, covering the Dark Ages. which first aired on the BBC between 1979 and 81, that first really got me interested in archaeology as a subject of mass appeal, coming, as it did, as a beacon of televisual light during the dark days of school (and the dismal round of results that proved to be my O Levels). 

John wrote and presented Romer's Egypt, which ran on the beeb at the same time and, although I've never followed Egyptology closely, I found his series similarly captivating and enthralling.

Perhaps it was the formative time of my life that I first watched these programmes, and repeatedly rewatched them (as my family owned an early VHS recording system which allowed me to tape these TV gems on a large, brick-shaped video cassette) but I feel that they represent the pinnacle of archaeological programming on the BBC. Yes, there are certainly more TV programmes covering archaeology and history today than in the early 1980s, but, watching them all (which I do) it feels that today's output can sometimes (although by no means always) be lightweight, breezy and intellectually unrewarding. 

True, presenters have become more professional and special effects far more flashy and dramatic, but today's content often feels either absent or completely watered down and I frequently get the feeling that I'm being talked down to. In rewatching both Romer and Wood (I now own remastered copies of their series on DVD, the VHS cassettes being almost completely unplayable, although they're probably invaluable museum pieces) you never get such a worrying sense. Here, in these early series, you are in the hands of capable and enthusiastic communicators who really know their respective subject areas. They never 'dumb-down' in order to pass on their hard-won knowledge. They never play tricks to the camera. They never patronise.

Meeting both was a joy, reminding me of why I wanted to get into archaeology in the first place, namely research, discovery and communication. It's been a difficult year, career-wise, and I've had moments where I've wondered whether it's all really been worthwhile, but meeting these two and sitting in their lectures afterwards, I was transported back to simpler times when the idea of studying the past seemed to be a glorious and exciting thing to do. 

Faith restored.