Friday, 12 October 2012

Factutainment: an archaeological quandary

It's getting very difficult to differentiate fact from fiction at the moment. Maybe my critical facilities are failing or, perhaps more likely (and indeed far more hopefully) it's the clear lack of distinction on TV between documentary / factu-mentary / docu-drama / dramamentary / factutainment / edutainment the days of old everything was far more effectively differentiated.

Documentaries used to be serious affairs, all big music and big statements and were usually hosted by big if rather dull types (usually men) with big beards (again, usually men) into which they mumbled incessantly about the price of cod, whilst posing manfully in big brown suits (or big jumpers), corduroy flares and kipper ties. Fictional dramas, on the other hand, had big men with big accents, big hats and big sideburns and big women with big hair, big dresses and big cleavages striding around big panelled rooms, colliding with big furniture and hitting small servants round the head. Occasionally they waggled a naked buttock at each other and / or fell off a horse whilst saying 'arrrr'.

The distinction between FACT based tale and FICTIONAL drama was, therefore, relatively clear cut. You knew what you were getting when you pressed the brick-sized button on the bottom of the wall-sized television and awaited the flickering pictures as the TV began the 15 minute process of firing up. Today I feel that the distinction between fact and fiction has become ever more blurred and that sometimes it is not always clear what, precisely, it is that you are being presented with. There are, for example, significant dramatisations embedded within serious documentaries (taking the 'story' into a poorly defined world of actor-based fiction, 'recreating' a series of historical (or archaeologically interpreted) events that may not even have happened). There are also pure dramas which harness and exploit the 'feel' of serious news in order to provide their own peculiar brand of fiction a greater degree of 'realism'.

Let me explain.

Last week I settled down in front of the idiot's lantern and was confronted by, what I assumed to be, a new documentary on Roman Britain. The piece started well enough, a dramatic recreation of the druids last stand against the might of Rome (on Anglesey?), although the small numbers of actors on screen (two) suggested a somewhat limited budget. Cut to a modern school playing field in Essex where development appeared to have struck an undisturbed Romano British site. Investigation is low key, probably, I muse, because the local council has done a deal with the developers who, in turn, are building 'sustainable, affordable housing on brown field land' or something and, therefore, there is no automatic budget for archaeological works nor is there a serious attempt to consider environmental impact. Typical. Still, at least two archaeologists are at hand to monitor the investigation and, as far as I can see, they've harnessed the potential of the school environment, developing some sort of community project involving a number of interested locals. Good...warms the heart.

We are told that a 'Geofizz' survey, conducted out of shot, apparently suggests the presence of "a well or shaft" of some kind close to the main area of investigation. Annoyingly the results (resistivity? magnetometry??) are not presented in front of the cameras nor are they explained in any kind of detail, presumably because the documentary director felt that such datasets would be too boring for the TV audience. Irritating when that happens - we, the viewing public should be credited with at least some intelligence.

The excavation itself was being funded by ‘University College Texas’, who seemed to have brought some pretty impressive kit with them, their lead operative working with a "3D info cam" apparently "the latest hi tech camera". It certainly looked impressive. There was no explanation of how it worked exactly, but the detailed way in which every millimetre of the trench wall and floor was being instantly recorded and rapidly interpreted made my mouth water. I made a mental note to check how much was left in our own university field equipment budget and see whether anyone was selling discounted 3D info cams online.

In contrast to the UCT team, the British excavators on site seemed to prefer a more basic set of equipment, their lead digger sarcastically noting (apparently, so she thought, off camera) that they had only a K.O.S or 'knackered old spade' (which she called 'Sam' - nothing really unusual in that I thought, my favourite spade, with the less friendly name 'brain-biter' and mattock, 'flint-gnasher', sit happily in my office just waiting for action). Transatlantic tensions were clearly the main focus of attention for the director, again to my annoyance - this 'Big Brother' style format - the desire to concentrate on social conflict at the expense of anything remotely educational is something that I increasingly find irritating - take Rome Wasn't built in a day the four part TV documentary about building a Roman townhouse in Wroxeter using traditional Roman techniques and materials which swiftly descended into a slice of 'fly on the wall' Big Brother socio-mentary, whole scenes comprising builders swearing at each other and lying face down in a ditch...

It wasn't until the eagle standard of the ninth legion came tumbling out of the section edge, followed very closely by 'druidic metalwork' that I began to feel a little bit uncomfortable...this was all a bit too good to be true wasn't it? The denarius finally dropped with the arrival of international crime organisation SKUL and a unit of school-age super spies....I realised with some horror that I was watching an episode of M.I. High on the CBBC channel....


Two days later I awoke from marking induced stupor (happens a lot I'm afraid) to find the TV on, but the sound down. As my eyes focused I realised that there was a news reporter on screen with some sort of medieval helmet on his head, gurning wildly at the camera. The man was manically waving his arms about, clearly in a state of heightened excitement. Behind him lay a deep trench, evidently archaeological, cut through what appeared to be a car park (it was).

I turned the volume up.

"Geotechnical magnetism" the man was enthusing "led the archaeologists to this spot and here they dug and here they found the remains of the King". I groaned inwardly. Not another King Arthur / search for the Holy Grail type archaeo-spoof. 'Geotechnical Magnetism' indeed; why couldn't script writers even try to make things sound remotely plausible? Still, they'd got the look of the news cast right, and the mock trench had been peopled with actors that actually did look like archaeologists (and who were wearing, beneath  reflective jackets, exactly the right sort of faded T shirt and mud splattered, multi-pocketed camouflage trousers). The set designers had even dressed the location up realistically with plausible looking survey equipment as well as wheel barrows that looked as if they had seen considerable action (some of which even had the appearance of having died in action) and there were shovels, spades and mattocks. Trowels were worn down to satisfyingly small shapes, not the long and pointy types freshly acquired from the nearest builder's merchants or DIY store.

The tireless reporter was now speaking to someone about whether or not this "could be the mortal remains of the King". I had a momentary fear that he would suddenly declare that he'd found Elvis, but luckily those fears proved unfounded. "Could be" the interviewee smiled somewhat cryptically, "he certainly seems to have sustained a number of injuries to the head and upper body and, intriguingly, appears to have had some sort of injury to his back resulting in one shoulder being higher than the other".

There was a pause in which I felt I ought to be impressed.

Obviously I had missed an earlier part of the documentary - probably a CGI gore fest showing King Arthur being struck down by Mordred, sustaining a series of head and back injuries in the process, in a climatic battle scene (Camlann probably), his sword falling to the ground in agonisingly slow motion. I half expected to see an Indiana Jones type in fedora and leather jacket emerge from behind the spoil heap with the sun blazing dramatically behind him, sword in hand whilst he breathlessly announced to the world that he had "found Excalibur"...

But no.

Instead we cut to straight to a church interior and the reporter, now in tweed jacket, clasping a picture of...wait a minute...that's Richard III isn't it? Hang on....

Realisation dawned. This was REAL LIFE (or as real as could be established under the circumstances) and these were REAL PEOPLE (not actors)...this was a piece of non fictionalised archaeo facto-tainment.

I turned the TV off and went to bed.

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