Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Britain's Secret Treasures

Archaeology, as an academic discipline / hobby / subject worthy of research, appears quite regularly (and thankfully) on our TV screens in the UK. BBC 1 and 2 have their 'flagship' documentary series, BBC 4 has the more quirky (and generally more interesting) arty / academic programmes, Channel 4 has its one off specials (now that Time Team has departed), Channel 5 its rather more sensationalist / lurid documentaries (involving unpleasant or improbable things) and ITV has

Truth be told, ITV has been a bit of a cultural black hole in the last 2 decades. Yes, its got crowd-pleasing hits such as X Factor, Britain's Got Talent, I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, and Dancing on Ice, together with big soaps and other prime-time dramas such as Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Downton Abbey, but, since the loss of its 'flagship arts programme' The South Bank Show in 2010, it hasn't really felt the need to show anything that in any way could be perceived as widening the mind of the viewer, stretching their intellect or even making them think: 'wow, I never knew that!'

So, all praise to the channel for screening the series Britain's Secret Treasures, an attempt, so the accompanying publicity blurb states, to " uncover a fresh hoard of extraordinary objects found by ordinary people that have changed our understanding of British history."

In short, it's a 8 episode series examining recent archaeological discoveries made by the public, trying to understand their importance, significance, value, context and nature. It's fronted by Michael Buerk and Bettany Hughes, Buerk a well-known and award winning journalist, Hughes a well-respected and talented historian. Both are excellent presenters and broadcasters in their own right. 

BUT there is a problem...and it's nothing to do with the concept, filming (which is excellent), scripting, basic format or items chosen to examine (although plenty of people have already criticised the apparent obsession with treasure; but then, given the title of the series, that's the point surely?).

NO - it's to do with ITV itself and it's (mis) understanding of the greater British viewing public, or at least their apparent belief that we (the great British public) can't be shown anything even vaguely interesting or intellectual without either celebrity input (hence a veritable host of stars presenting individual treasure stories), endless recaps and interminable advert breaks. In effect then, although the TV listings state that the each programme is 30 minutes in duration, the reality is that the portions supplied are far less generous.

I present a typical episode for analysis, Episode 4, complete with on-screen timings:

00.00 - Introduction - a voice over to images taken from the series that plays every week
01.25 - Welcome from the hosts and a 'coming up in tonight's programme' preview
02.12 - 1st item: Elizabethan jewel (Suzannah Lipscomb travels to Brentford)
06.49 - 2nd item: Iron Age mirror (Mary-Ann Ochota travels to Pegsdon)

11.14 - 'Coming up after the break' a voice over preview with the hosts
11.39 - Advert break
15.50 - 'Welcome back' from the hosts at the British Museum
16.34 - 3rd item: Roman coins (John Prescott travels to Cardiff)
20.40 - 4th item: Jacobean silver hawking vervel (Bettany Hughes travels to Norwich)

25.39 - 'Coming up next week' preview
26.14 - Credits
26.41 - Finish

So, once you've stripped out the introductions, welcomes, series preview, episode preview, next week's episode preview AND advert break, you're left with a glittering 17 minutes of programme content (per episode) in which to examine the artefacts themselves:  an average total of around 4 and a quarter minutes per item. Clearly this is not enough to get an understanding of the context or historical importance of anything (especially when you factor in the guest celebrity 'hello, yes it's me from....etc etc'), before 'here's the next thing to look at'. This is television for the easily distracted (or for those who are doing something else - the ironing perhaps? - whilst it's on). 

All credit then to ITV for commissioning and screening this particular series; shame they felt that the viewers all have such critically short attention spans. What I suggest for next time is...

...oh…hang on a moment, what's that shiny thing over there?…..sorry, what was I talking about?


  1. and how exactly are they SECRET treasures, given that all have previously been reported to and in some cases published by the Portable Antiquities Scheme?

    1. Ah yes, 'Treasure': one of the key 'selling' words that TV executives and book publishers use to promote their product. I was once told that the best words to somehow jam into a title in order for it to sell more copies (or attract more viewers) were 'Secret', 'Code', 'Nazi' and 'Treasure' followed by either 'Celtic' or 'Stonehenge'....

      .....‘Breaking the Secret Nazi Treasure Code of Celtic Stonehenge’ – now that’s a Channel 5 documentary if ever I heard one!

  2. What about the Secret Celtic Treasure of Nazi Stonehenge?

    1. Well, quite....sounds like you have an instant bestseller on your hands !

  3. The best treasure I've found was a dog footprint and somebodys fingerprints in a piece of roman tile. I'm waiting for ITV to come knocking at my door, yet somehow expect that it will be Channel 5.

    POST EDITED BY: Anoymoose, 5 Seconds later.
    drat. I've just told you about my treasure so its no longer secret

    1. I'm afraid the bods from C5 are coming your way now as we speak...