Beneath the Surface of Digging For Britain

So this past weekend I had the privilege of crashing a talk about archaeology documentariesAlice Roberts in Conversation with John Farren – at Salisbury Museum’s open weekend as part of the UK’s Festival of Archaeology. For those unfamiliar, Professor Alice Roberts is a archaeological scientist (her specialty is osteology) who has presented on several British factual series including Time Team, The Incredible Human Journey, The Origins of Us, Ice Age Giants, Coast and Digging for Britain. John Farren is the producer of Digging For Britain (though his company 360 Productions), as well as other factual archaeology documentaries such as Rome: The Worlds First Super Power and What The Ancients Did For Us, and he also edited Timewatch. Digging For Britain is a magazine-style factual series on BBC 4 which reports annually on current UK excavations, taking a novel approach to filmmaking by combining archaeologists’ own DIY footage of the digs with post-excavation interviews in a pop-up studio in local museums.

I love these kind of events, where two familiar experts can candidly talk shop, taking the dialogue to unexpected places, before opening it up to a regular audience Q & A. It was like Sheffield DocFest meets TAG (Theoretical Archaeology Group conference), so despite the audience being somewhat silver-topped, I happily got my geek on.

Digging For Britain Q & A with Alice Roberts and John Farren. Photo: Olivia Robson (2015).
Digging For Britain Q & A with Alice Roberts and John Farren. Photo: Olivia Robson (2015).

Here are a few essential takeaways:

– “Talent” is key to successful factual formats: when Farren first pitched Digging For Britain it was not until he dropped Alice Roberts’ name that the BBC commissioner began to take the idea for the series seriously. They wanted her so badly that they actually delayed production by 5 weeks to allow her an extended stint of maternity leave (she had initially agreed to start shooting 3 weeks after giving birth). Roberts was at pains to make the point that women can continue working soon after child birth if they wish, and the benefits of bringing her young children with her on shoots and digs. I’m really digging Roberts attitude right now.

Necessity is the mother of invention (or innovation): It was fascinating hearing about the struggles to get Digging For Britain on air and to keep it there. It was particularly revealing to hear how the program was dropped (despite high ratings), but through the changing of the BBC’s commissioner the filmmakers scored a second chance, although with a smaller budget which forced the format to adapt (hence the shift to DIY filming by archaeologists, rather than sending Roberts out as a presenter to sites with a film crew as in earlier series). These innovations changed the scope and tone of the stories, unexpectedly allowing greater intimacy and analysis. I suddenly have a lot more respect for a program that, to be honest, I was not especially sold on when I first saw it (perhaps because I’m not British, so I’m not the target audience). I’ll have to revisit Digging For Britain for another look.

– My own observation: everyone plays the blame game when sensationalism, “dumbing down” and misrepresentation appear rife. Archaeologists blame the filmmakers, the filmmakers blame the commissioners, the commissioners blame the audience. The audience however, seem to be the least bothered by these problems.

– Speaking of, the sheer joy and enthusiasm among some of the audience members during the Q & A was infectious. It was inspiring to hear the positive and very real impact of archaeology documentaries on people’s lives – particularly Time Team – again, I suddenly find I have a lot more respect for Time Team and factual formats in general. It’s nice to sit amongst a public audience and have their warmth wear away at that cynical edge you can develop in academia.

TV is no longer the dominant paradigm: according to Farren, who is shifting his efforts to online distribution, such as his new Youtube series Dig Diaries (which I discovered features my mate maritime archaeologist Dan Pascoe – it’s a small world!). This gels with both my training back at film school a couple of years ago and the general vibe at documentary conferences (eg. Sheffield DocFest, AIDC). The obvious benefit of digital distribution is that it provides an alternative to relying on broadcasters, who tend to be “risk adverse” to the speculative nature of both archaeology and traditional documentary. The short of it: the freedom of digital means we can go back to shooting stories that we don’t yet know the ending of, something broadcasters kind of stopped doing a while ago. The challenge however, is to still pull comparative ratings and to be able to measure success.

– Roberts asked the audience if they felt there was too much emphasis on ‘treasure’ on television – surprisingly, only about 20% agreed. And I suspect by the speed of their hands flying up that they were archaeologists or heritage professionals. I think it’s time for a few new audience surveys.

Roberts and Farren covered a lot of ground and although I can’t do justice to their whole conversation here, thankfully it was filmed, so I assume Salisbury Museum or the Festival of Archaeology organisers will be posting the whole thing online soon – when that happens I’ll be sure to share it here.

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