So that’s it! Last night saw the screening of the final episode of Time Team, notwithstanding a few ‘specials’ next year and a new project called ‘Dig Village’ currently in development. Sunday tea-times will never be the same again.
Rather than one of the three-day digs for which the Team has become famous, this was a compilation show looking back over the programme’s 20-year history. And what a story it was, tracing their progress from humble beginnings – it’s amazing to recall that the first episode, at Athelney, didn’t even involve any digging – to ambitious live excavations and increasingly high-profile sites. We heard about how the show became one of the main funders of research archaeology when the financial crash put the brakes on development-led excavations, and deserved tribute was also paid to their dedication to post-excavation analysis and publishing site reports.
The pinnacle of this success must have been the Big Royal Dig at Buckingham Palace in 2006, a ringing endorsement of the professional cachet the Team by then enjoyed. We saw Tony and Phil meeting the Royal Family before they departed for Scotland (‘Getting out of the way,’ Prince Charles joked), Phil still wearing his beloved battered hat above a smart suit. A few words were exchanged and the camera started to draw back – but not before it caught the Queen’s dubious aside: ‘Are they going to dig up everything?’
Magical moments like this, puncturing grandiose elements with lively humour, are what made the series so enjoyable to watch. Likewise, just when the loving tributes were tending towards the sentimental, Phil Harding (CA Archaeologist of the Year 2013) appeared onscreen to assert in his immediately-recognisable West Country burr that ‘obviously’ it was his ‘talent, good looks, and sex appeal’ that made him a shoe-in for a TV career. What a legend.
Last night’s episode was a nostalgic treat, with archive footage, garish jumpers, and wild hair in abundance. Commentary from the Team, affectionately described by Tony Robinson as a ‘motley crew’, was self-deprecating but proud of what they had achieved, and the love that they clearly felt for the show to which many had dedicated two decades of their lives was still very evident.
It is a shame that relatively few of the main ‘faces’ – and no female members of the Team – were interviewed, however. Francis Pryor, John Gater, Mick, Phil, and Tony featured prominently, but where were Helen Geake and Stewart Ainsworth? There was also little sign of featured diggers such as Raksha, Matt, and Faye, and none at all of cheeky ceramicist Paul Blinkhorn (who recently featured in his own archaeology series, Pub Dig). It was fun to spend 45 minutes revisiting key digs, but I missed the people who had played such an important role in investigating them.
If this was an affectionate portrait, it was also a fairly uncritical one, ending with the Team celebrating their 200th episode at the end of series 18. No mention was made of the upheaval that followed, during which base camp upped sticks to Cardiff, most of the production team left, controversial changes were made to the format, and Mick Aston departed the show. Viewers were simply told that ‘we marched on for another two series’, with no explanation for why the programme had now come to an end. Perhaps this wasn’t the place to discuss internal politics – certainly there is a lot to celebrate about the show, and series 20 has shown a marked return to form – but for a documentary purporting to tell the story of Time Team it felt odd to omit the final chapters altogether.
Nevertheless, in spite of – and perhaps because of – these final wobbles, it was good to be reminded of the show’s remarkable achievements. In 224 digs, Time Team revolutionised the presentation of archaeology on TV (which before had focussed largely on the Classical world), bringing Britain’s heritage into our front rooms – and, in the early series, into our back gardens. With the help of everyman presenter Tony Robinson, who asked for explanations ‘in words a Beano reader could understand’, pottery identification, stratigraphy, and ‘geofizz’ have become household names, and whole generations of archaeology enthusiasts (including both members of the CA editorial team) have been inspired to get involved. It is hard not to feel a pang of loss at the show’s passing, but there is doubtlessly much to celebrate.
For more on the trials and triumphs of this ground-breaking series, see our feature: Time Team – the rise and fall of a television phenomenon in CA 274