Professor Mick Aston: Why I quit Time Team, and the danger of losing touch with our history
I’ve decided to quit Time Team because Channel 4 decided to alter the format. There is a lot less archaeological content and a lot more pratting about. I was the archaeological consultant but they decided to get rid of half the archaeological team, without consulting me.
I think it has dumbed down. Let me explain why that is bad for archaeology in general.
Stuart Ainsworth, the surveyor, is used a lot less in the current series of Time Team. It is the same with Helen Geake who does history and finds, and with Victor Ambrus, the illustrator.
Computer-generated images are fine and we can fly round buildings with it and go through arches but archaeologists have always taken the view that you need both illustrations and computer images.
Victor has years of knowledge. I am really angry that they felt they could make these big decisions which have a direct result on the archaeology without consulting me.
Almost immediately that we began to make the series we didn’t have Stuart and it made things difficult. We were filming at Clipstone in Nottinghamshire, site of a King John’s hunting lodge, and we put a trench across what we thought was a big perimeter ditch but it turned out to be a field boundary.
Stuart would have realised that within the first five minutes and we wouldn’t have wasted time digging the trench.
We had a very embarrassing situation at Castle Hill, near Crewkerne. They didn’t have Helen, who works for the portable antiquities scheme, and they didn’t have anyone else to deal with finds.
The local portable antiquities lady was ill so we had things coming out of the ground and not being able to say there and then what they were and we had the embarrassing situation where a volunteer member of the public actually identified finds.
They said the changes were for ‘televisual reasons’ but it is important to have, and to show, the archaeological process. The people are there because they know what they are talking about and everyone has a role. I am not against change of course, but it has to be for a reason. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
They have been saying for some years that the viewing figures have been going down and that’s partly why they engineered this. But they never advertised Time Team in between other programmes as they do with some other programmes, and they are always mucking about with the times it is shown. It is no wonder that the viewing figures are lower.
They had a meeting which they didn’t invite me to and said the BBC’s Countryfile was the model. To me that is a programme which went from being a programme presented by farmers and people who knew about the countryside to one in which there is only one farmer and is full of cliché-ridden pap. The countryside is always picturesque in Countryfile.
I don’t understand why if you have an audience of intelligent people you can’t play on that rather than change the audience. They don’t realise that a huge number of people have gone to university and got qualifications of one sort or another and want to be talked to about subjects they don’t know about at a level they know of their own subjects. I don’t think people want this dumbing down just because there are difficult issues and concepts.
When they sent me the rough cuts of the programmes for the current series I complained that there was a lot of faffing about. In the programme on Clipstone the two new presenters were shown with bows and arrows capering about in the woods. I complained bitterly about that and they said they would take it out.
They sent me a long letter listing the bits they had taken out but I see that some have still appeared. I will be interested to see if the bows and arrows are back. I have left Time Team because I don’t like what is going on.
I don’t know anyone else in TV who has left voluntarily like this. I shall miss all my friends there, including Tim Taylor, the series producer, and the very interesting pieces of archaeology, and although we never got paid a fortune, I shall certainly miss the money.
I don’t think the people at Channel 4 really understand what we were trying to do. I was in the extra-mural department of Bristol University for 25 years to put on courses of interest to the general public and to my view a programme that could reach three million viewers rather than 30 in a village hall was a very good thing. We were not in it for fame.
Archaeology is not something that is essential, like running the health service or building houses and unless people find it interesting and want to see it happen then it is vulnerable.
There is no legislation, for example, that says you must employ archaeologists and have sites excavated nor that there should be a county museum or county record office – and these things are very vulnerable now the forces of darkness and evil are stalking the land.
Organisations such as Somerset Heritage Service and the new Museum of Somerset are fantastically important, not just for archaeology but for the economy of Somerset.
People come to Somerset to see Glastonbury Tor and Wells Cathedral and the Levels, not to see factories, and they do that because the expertise and the records are there to inform them.
When I came to Somerset in 1974 I was its first county archaeologist.
The work done over 40 years by others has made its heritage service one of the best in the country. Heritage services everywhere need support . Dumbing down will not help them.