“We even had public organisations knocking on Time Team’s door offering us a crack at their sites.”
Tony Robinson is waving to us from the other side of a field. “This is the story of how Time Team transformed the understanding of archaeology in Britain,” he shouts. “And even made it entertaining!”
Such enthusiasm befits this special episode of Time Team (Sunday, 5.30pm, C4), a spirited eulogy for the beloved archaeological bee as a spade of Damocles hovers above its split ends (the next series, inexplicably, will be its last). The stats are impressive: 20 years of digs, 224 excavations, and any number of young minds expanded, all actioned by men who look as if they have dug themselves up and forgotten to hand themselves in at the local museum.
An introductory “outdoor action” montage makes clear the fortitude required for the all-weather digging game: Wurzel-ian bumbler Phil Harding thundering across shingle in tiny shorts; explosively jumpered professor Mick Aston roaring about earthenware in a force-13 gale; layman enthusiast Tony Robinson gesticulating in denim as horizontal rain reduces yet another site to soup.
As complexions redden and bumbags grow tighter, we see how their finds expanded beyond the series’ endearingly shonky confines and became … impressive. Important even. Byzantine buckets. Viking shoes. Edward III’s tiled floor (“It’s Edward III’s tiled floor!”). Roman burial grounds and Neolithic stone circles began to appear among the usual haul of ossified crisp packets, broken brown things, and stuff Mick thought was evidence of a hitherto undiscovered Iron Age settlement, but wasn’t.
“By now we even had public organisations knocking on Time Team’s door offering us a crack at their sites,” chuckles Robinson over footage of a National Trust executive standing outside a door in 2003. In different hands such a legacy would be a green light for wankery, but even in the throes of self-embiggenment TT’s trumpet remains only partially blown, with every toot followed by a cheery honk of self-deprecation. “We really were a scruffy ensemble,” hoots Robinson as we watch Phil scratching his arse in a trench.
No wonder Britain loved Time Team. Magnetised by its blend of historical mystery and arse-scratching accessibility, the public responded to its sporadic requests for help with whoops of glee, volunteering for live excavations and taking to its own back garden in a nationwide bid to dig for victory, or at least bits of old plate. Elsewhere, a “history can be fun” montage reminds us of the series’ archae-LOL-ogical appeal: a marmalade jar discovered under an alleged Norman ruin in 2001; a section on the excavation of a Powys farm that reveals the lengths to which Welsh wildlife will go to avoid Phil’s pronunciation of “enormous”.
By the time the clock hits 2010 there is a chill in the air. There’s no mention of recent changes: the format having been shaken by the ankles until its beard fell off and its brain gone done all stupid (no wonder Mick Aston buggered off in a professorly huff). Nor is there any mention of its impending cancellation, the eulogy trailing off in a cloud of “brilliant!”s, as if sheer enthusiasm will make everyone forget the awful truth.
But let’s not dwell on the injustice, or the “factual programming” horrors that will inevitably take its place, or indeed on the madness of axing an institution that, like fellow learned eccentric The Sky At Night, could have so easily been left to tinker away merrily in its public service potting shed. Instead, let’s celebrate the memory of a national treasure that charmed and educated through the simple expedient of bejumpered boffins at toil in soil. No tans. No tits. No celebrity guests talking about their favourite trowel. No Coldplay to tell us when to cry at the celebrity guests talking about their favourite trowel. Just history delivered by experts who loved what they did and wanted us to love it, too.
Rest in peace, mud men.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010