Channel 4 calls time on Time Team

Time Team Logo : Credit Caro Wallis

As Channel 4 announces Time Team will not return as a regular series Andy Brockman looks back on twenty years of legendary TV Archaeology and tries to assess it significance and legacy.

This week Channel 4 executives finally called time on Television’s most successful format for putting archaeology on TV when the Channel announced that Series 20 of the programme, due to be broadcast in 2013, would be the last in the regular three day dig format.


Truth to be told the death of the patient was not unexpected.  For several years Time Team has been set about by rumours that the programme was reaching the end of its television life.  A diagnosis which was supported both by tinkering with the format, by the wholesale changes made among the regular presenters who were always the programme’s greatest strength and most obviously of all by the Channel 4 schedulers inventing a whole new game called “Where’s Time Team” where the viewer had to guess where amongst the Sunday evening schedule of episodes of “Come Dine With Me” and “Deal or No Deal” Time Team would turn up.

Mick Aston (Left) Wiki Commons

The decline of the show was typified by Professor Mick Aston’s public withdrawal from the programme earlier this year.  Even though he no longer appeared in every programme, for many people Mick Aston was Time Team; after all he did co-create the format with film maker Tim Taylor and without his presence and with his parting shots at the TV Executives who insisted on “a lot less archaeological content and a lot more pratting about” it was clear all was not well and the prognosis poor.

Of course Time Team may not be universally mourned.  The programme was not always popular with some parts of the archaeological profession- the words dumbing down were heard, particularly in the early days and there were criticisms of the format, with suggestions that the three day time line was a television gimmick- although that line mostly came from academic archaeologists who conducted research excavations taking weeks, months and years.  In fact Time Team was perfectly timed to show the public just what most UK archaeology looked like in the mid 1990’s.  Time Team was a televised PPG 16 Archaeological Evaluation but without the builders hoardings preventing the public from seeing what was happening.  We, the viewer, saw the whole process, even when the team spent two days digging in the wrong place because a map had been misread, found a site crammed full of faked archaeology, or, in one memorable instance found nothing at all.

That was the key to the programme’s success.  What Mick Aston and Tim Taylor created was that most successful of TV formats, a Police Procedural, but a Police Procedural that just happened to be about the process of Archaeology. We saw the crime scene and the evidence as it came out of the ground, but like all the best Police Procedurals the programme was also firmly based on a compelling and contrasting set of returning characters.


In that respect Time Team was beautifully cast from the off with the grumpy but inspirational Lead Detective Mick Aston; the utterly reliable Sergeant who always delivers Phil Harding; the younger, slightly nerdish sidekick Stuart Ainsworth and the technical wizardry which does not always work supplied by Geophy’s.  There were women working alongside the men as part of the team, a rich range of regional accents, entertaining sub texts such as avowed republicans digging up the gardens of Buckingham Palace and flashes of inspiration over a pint of Real Ale worthy of Inspector Morse during the programmes signature “upsum”.  Every so often there were even bodies explained by Dr Margaret Cox and a young Alice Roberts getting her TV break.

Meanwhile, for the audience the whole thing was pulled together by another masterpiece of casting. The best presenters make a difficult medium, Television shot as live and without a script, look easy and let the audience concentrate on the story and for that role Taylor and Aston chose the everyman figure of Tony Robinson.  Already a national figure with a considerable career as an actor, writer and political activist under his belt and not least identified with that other iconic everyman S Baldrick of Blackadder fame, Tony Robinson held a longstanding interest in History and Mythology and had met Mick Aston on an Archaeology Course in Greece. He also comes across on camera as a force of nature.  Thus he was perfectly fitted to break down the fourth wall of the camera lens and involve the audience in the archaeological action.

It is a truism that great casting involves an actor in a role you cannot imagine anyone else playing; Ronald Regan instead of Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” anyone?  One of the great strengths of Time Team, and latterly one element in its decline, is the fact that it is almost impossible to imagine anyone else in the roles the programme created so perfectly.

At this point, your author has to confess a particular interest in writing this article and a particular debt of gratitude to Time Team.  Thanks to a walk on part in one episode it gave me the highlight of my career to date- an appearance with Francis Pryor on Harry Hills “TV Expert of the Week Slot” on TV Burp.

No, actually it all began before that.  Roundabout series three on a sunny afternoon in in the courtyard of a pub in Oxford, several pints into a good lunch, I decided that Time Team had reminded me why I had first become interested in archaeology as a teenager.  It was fascinating, it was fun and done right archaeology was the best kind of teamwork.  Having reached that revelation there was only one logical solution.  I was going to swop one poorly paid, insecure career in Theatre for an equally poorly paid insecure career in Archaeology.

Ten years, three certificate courses and one MA later I was standing on Shooters Hill in South East London about to shoot the first scene of Time Team Series 15 Episode 8  “Blitzkrieg on Shooters Hill.”

Even though I only ever appeared in that one programme and have been lucky enough to do other television since in front of and behind the camera, the two words Time Team still have a magic no other TV Archaeology format can match.  Indeed, people still ask about the programme even though it was first broadcast over four years ago.  Yes it was genuinely shot over just three days [but with a thorough preparation and background research], no we didn’t fake anything for the camera, there was no script, there was an outline but the programme was shaped in the editing suite and no it wasn’t an Auxiliary Home Guard hideout in that back garden.  That is a point worth remembering.  There and elsewhere, Time Team did not always get the archaeology right, but reassessing evidence is part of the process too and on all the best sites the archaeology continues and our understanding grows.

What is undeniable is that the resources that Time Team were able to bring to the Shooters Hill site advanced our work by at least two years and also re-wrote the book on that part of south east London by accidentally discovering a metal working site from the Bronze Age Iron Age Transition.  Overnight the study of pre-history in Woolwich went from a record of dead people in barrows to a record of people living and working at the cutting edge of their technology.  Other groups on other sites will have had the same experience and we will miss it.  Channel 4 states it has invested £4 million in UK Archaeology through the life of Time Team over and above the productions costs including fees to the dig teams.

The fact that Time Team was also covering a story focused on the Archaeology of Modern Conflict also points up strength of the Programme; its bravery.  Time Team showed metal detectors being used as part of the Archaeological Process before the Portable Antiquities Scheme came into being; the conflict of style and methodology when archaeologists try to work with aircraft wreck recovery groups, took on the scandal of the Sevso Treasure and promoted the concept of community participation in archaeology against some opposition often returning to the fact that local people and non-professionals also had a valuable contribution to make to archaeology, particularly they were allowed to work alongside the professionals and academics.  At its best Time Team’s contribution was not just to the archaeological record.  It was to how archaeology in Britain is actually done.

The programme remains ahead of the game.  One of the last season’s episodes visits Operation Nightingale, the award winning project to use archaeology to help rehabilitate injured servicemen and women; a project which is both innovative and scarcely a year old.

Channel 4’s press release announcing the end of Time Team as we know it carries this “upsum” from Tony Robinson.

“Not many performers are given the privilege of featuring in two iconic TV series – but I’ve been lucky!  Time Team was not only high-quality public service television; it also attracted a large and passionate audience both in the UK and overseas. I’m proud to have been associated with it.”

Actually Tony, it is all of us who care about UK archaeology who have been lucky.  Whatever faults the programme had are far outweighed by the fact that we have had twenty years of a programme showing the British public what we do as archaeologists.  By putting that process on Prime Time Sunday evening television, Time Team also enabled the millions of people who watched the programme in its prime to show by the very fact that they were watching, that they cared very much about the history and archaeology Time Team broadcast.  Indeed it is entirely possible that, without the public and media profile Time Team gave archaeology, the fight to prevent the emasculation of the planning rules under the original developer drafted version of the National Planning Policy Framework would have been a whole lot harder.

True towards the end there might have been too many similar programmes and the regular Time Team tropes might have been becoming just that bit too regular and knowing-  the legendary Time Team Drinking Game [ ] where you take two sips of strong alcohol if  Phil frets until he is allowed to do some digging and five sips if the preliminary summary of what they expect to find is proved to be completely wrong, demonstrates that.

However, the worry we must all face is that with Time Team in its regular “Dig” format gone, there is no other programme anywhere on terrestrial or satellite which will educate and inspire future archaeologists in the way that Time Team has.  In the short term at least TV commissioning editors, where they commission Archaeology related programming at all, seem to be going for the quick fix of a one off special, or short series of specials such as the BBC’s “Prehistoric Autopsy”, often wedded either to foreign travel which looks great in HD or to a “concept” such as reverse engineering a bouncing bomb on a Canadian Lake or creating a CGI rich version of archaeology as a computer game.

Time Teams greatest legacy?  It might annoy some Archaeological Geophysicists to have to refer to their dark art as Geophy’s, but it is a measure of the achievement of Tim Taylor, Mick, Tony, Phil and the rest of the team over those twenty years that we don’t have to explain to the public what “Geophy’s” is anymore!  In fact the language and style of time Team became so much a part of everyday popular culture that, as I know to my cost, Harry Hill was able to regularly use clips from the programme for his “TV Expert of the Week” slot on his ITV 3 “TV Burp”.  ITV 3 not being well known for its coverage of history or archaeology of any kind.

That is the legacy.  Time Team made archaeology which belonged to everyone and that everyone felt they could be a part of.  That was only ever dangerous to people who would rather archaeology was not done at all and to those who would want to keep archaeology and our past somehow their exclusive fiefdom.  Time Team was the antithesis of that view and British Archaeology is the better for those twenty series, more than 250 episodes and over forty Specials where we had just three days [or 48 minutes of TV on a Sunday Evening] to find out.

Written by Andy Brockman

HeritageDaily : Archaeology News : Archaeology Press Releases

Time Team Press Release:

After 18 years, 20 series and more than 40 specials, Time Team will air its final series on Channel 4 in 2013. Further one-off specials are planned for at least into 2014 and the series will continue to be repeated across both More4 and Channel 4.

Channel 4 will increase its focus on new and innovative history programming; with new commissions with exclusive access to archaeological discoveries including the recently announced The King in the Carpark: Richard III and the brand new The People of Stonehenge (w/t), The Hood (w/t) – as well Attack of the Zeppelins (w/t) with Hugh Hunt.

Head of Factual Ralph Lee says: “I am incredibly proud that, as well as providing hundreds of hours of education and entertainment on Channel 4, Time Team has invested, over and above production costs, more than £4m in archaeology in Britain over the past 18 years. Time Team will continue to be on our screens for at least a further two years and we are discussing other ideas around archaeology with Tim Taylor, Time Team’s creator and the production team behind it.

“Time Team was one of our first returning Factual formats and entirely original when it first aired – but with innovation vital to Channel 4’s DNA, 2013 will see a renewed commitment to history programming with bold new approaches and formats as well as a range of one-off programmes.”

Commissioning Editor for History Julia Harrington says: “Channel 4 history is all about bringing the past to life in eye-opening, entertaining and innovative ways, from the best archaeological scoops, to big factual dramas such as The Mill, to experiential formats such as Hilary Devey’s Dole Office, and Guy Martin on our industrial past in the current series How Britain Worked.”

Channel 4 is working with broadcaster Tony Robinson on a brand new history series Walking through History (w/t) for which he has devised four walks through major stories in British history: from charting the Second World War along the Dorset coast to the progress of industrial revolution in the Derbyshire Peak district, the Jacobin rebellions in the Scottish Highlands and the source of Tudor noblemen’s’ power in the Kent Weald.

Tony said: “Not many performers are given the privilege of featuring in two iconic TV series – but I’ve been lucky! Time Team was not only high-quality public service television; it also attracted a large and passionate audience both in the UK and overseas. I’m proud to have been associated with it.”

Twenty years of Time Team will be celebrated in the last programme of the final series in 2013 – looking back over the highs and the lows, the people and the places and the achievements of a series which ran for over 250 episodes.

The digs have provided a wealth of information and research material currently stored by Wessex Archaeology. Channel 4, along with the programme makers Videotext and Picture house TV will work to maintain this archive as part of Time Team’s academic legacy.

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