Thursday, 19 December 2013

Terrible TV Review: Battlefield Britain

I normally don't do reviews, but this really got my blood boiling! "Battlefield Britain", hosted by father-son duo Peter and Dan Snow back in 2004, looked at the most famous battles in British history; Boudica v the Romans, the battle of Hastings, the Spanish Armarda, and so on, using a mixture of top-down and bottom-up explanations, with some reconstructions, using actors, physical scenarios and virtual reality. So this actually sounds very normal for a history program with some archaeology thrown in, trying to experiment with new technology and actively trying to reconstruct what it would have felt like to be in a battle, to make it more appealing to the public; currently it is being shown after midnight on BBC 4. But I'm going to explain why this is a terrible advertisment for both history and archaeology, and I fear that it has set a precedent for more TV shows that ignore the facts and just want ratings.

Battlefieldbritain.jpg
And this was meant to be high-tech stuff back in 2004! (image from wikipedia)

So to begin with I watched the first 2 epiodes and got so angry with the way that they treated the history and archaeology with such contempt that I point blank refuse to watch another episode. Why? Well, the main issue I had was their contempt for presenting a very narrow and very strict version of history that didn't use very much evidence at all. If this was a scientific experiment, they would be laughed out the lab. Seriously, I've seen children's history books with more factual content.

Take the first episode. Boudica was the queen of the Iceni, but on her husband's death, the Romans defied the will he made up and took the whole of her lands, rather than just half. That they got right. What they didn't get right was everything else! They presented a horrible view that the Romans simply conquered every tribe in Britain as soon as they touched down on our Isle. In fact, the Romans went about conquering Britain much more subtly, by negotiating treaties with various tribes, like the Dobunni, who in exchange for their continued security, would pay taxes and allow the Romans to trade with them in their towns, even helping to build these new towns for the tribes. This is information that was even back then not particularly difficult to come by; any archaeologist working on any roman site would be able to tell you what I've just said, and more! Furthermore, the only archaeology we saw was the remains of the temple in Colchester, which "withstood the fighting of the Iceni" by holding out for 2 days. Any look at a Time Team episode (admittedly biased) will show you that the Iron Age is full of archaeology, which can tell use so much more about their lives than the fighting we see on this program (also see my excavation on an Iron Age site here). This was relying purely on the evidence of Tacitus, and not on any site reports that are available, which is a crying shame because there are bound to be site reports for archaeological excavations on all the sites that were mentioned in the program.. Boudica, admittedly some new evidence concerning the location of her last battle, but they neglected to mention the other alternatives (except for Mancetter). New research that wasn't available to them at the time suggests that the battle took place near Church Stowe in Northamptonshire (John Pegg 2010).

Then we come to the second episode (the Battle of Hastings), which was probably written on the back of a coaster in a pub. They neglected to mention the following things (that are rather important to the Battle of Hastings and it's context): the Bayeux tapestry, Harald Hadrada as King of the Norwegian Vikings and his claim to the throne, the story of how Edward the Confessor promised his throne to William. In their defence, the presentation of the fights themselves was well done; fast paced, and somewhere there was a narrative. They did also mention other important facts, like the Italian mercenaries, how it was a battle for god and not just William, how the Vikings were defeated at Stamford Bridge; but a lot of this is mentioned in the tapestry at one point or another.Furthermore, there was no explanation for the Vikings attacking England, except for "pillaging". This is the same army sent by Harald Hadrada; no king with a claim to a throne would send troops to an enemy country with no instructions except to pillage, as was very much implied by the program.
 Yes, the reconstructions of being charge by a horse was a useful exercise in showing the power of mounted knights, but by this point in the program the context of the story had been so muddled up with a lack of information I felt at a loss. A battle without it's own story is just an exercise in meat-grinding.

You can argue against my critique that history is subject to changes in opinion, but we knew even back then, only 9 years ago, that the Romans were not so stupid as to charge head-first into an unknown and hostile land without first making some friends. Neglection of even mentioning the Tapestry is a major flaw in the argument of this episode, especially when they are in France for part of the show. Surely they could have got access to it? Seriously, Dan Snow is now the President of the Council for British Archaeology (although his background is history and not archaeology). He needs to button up and do some reading. Or some excavating. He is a historian first and it shows. Not a very good one, on this evidence. Not one excavtion was shown in these episodes, and I suspect this is the case for all the remainder. Having said that, I will agree with Dan that his dad does explain some rather complicated bits of history quite well, befitting of a man who has worked on the TV for so long.

The main selling point of the program is Peter Snow's "briefcase", which, when opened up, displays a battlefield from a particular time and place. Using virtual reconstructions of men, their weapons and the environment, it presents the fighting almost as it was. There is very little wrong with the reconstructions themselves, but I will come back to the problems of reconstructions in a moment. Meanwhile, they also use a mixture of "interviews" with actors being soldiers or civillians from the time period in questions, which again in itself is not a bad idea. Furthermore, they re-enact some aspects of warfare for themselves; I did like the use of the police as a makeshift "shield wall" and contrasting the two techniques, although the police-woman showed up the Snows in their knowledge of what a good shield wall should do, but then that is a new interpretation in itself, and that is actually good for public viewing, giving a new insight into the mind of those who are on the front line today. But not in the past, it should be said. But this is a minor qualm when you're broadcasting information to the public.

If this program was given any more screen time than it has already been given, I would be extremely concerned. This is a very lop-sided version of histroy that simply ignores unacceptably large amount of evidence. Yes, we've all heard about the Bayeux tapestry for the hundredth time, but there's a good reason why you've heard about it; it is one of the most important pieces of evidence we have surrounding the account of the battle of Hastings, and it provides more than one side of the story, even if it is written by the victor. A lop-sided and deliberately incomplete account of history is a far more dangerous thing than a simply lop-sided one. Many of the tyrants of history knew that eliminating the traces of your vanquished foes made your position all the more secure; to quote Hitler "Who remembers now the destruction of the Armenians?", a rhetoric reference to the Armenian Genocide, which was carried out during World War 1, and seemingly forgotten about during the inter-war period, possibly helping to justify Hitler's extermination of the Jews and other races during the Second Word War.

Now for the reconstructions. I could be here all day, but I will keep it short. You can reconstruct anything from the past, but if you do not explain how it was reconstructed, what sources you used, and what could be an alternative presentation of the facts, then you risk alienating experts, you risk presenting a falsified version of events, and then accidentally (or intentaionally) lying to the public. Given that we pay the licence fee, the BBC needs to think carefully over what it is spending it's money on. Those virtual reconstructions are based on some historical and archaeological evidence, but also ethnogrpahic evidence (the actors, reconstructing fighting techniques and so on), but there is no mention of where the environmental sources! If you look out over a bit of green space, how long ago do you think it was before it was cleared of trees and undergrowth? We don't know the answer to that question unless we count rings on trees and count pollen from coring samples. This links back to the "written on a coaster in a pub" statement above; it feels very rushed, without consulting all the evidence (again, becoming a bit of a theme here). My point here is that no reconstruction is ever going to be perfect, no matter how "realistic" it looks. It can be an accurate and precise reconstruction, but it can never be a "true" reconstruction, because of the nature of the evidence. You will note that this caveat is never mentioned in any program that features reconstructions, not even in Time Team!

On to the BBC itself. While the nature of historical programs has got better in using more recent historical and archaeological evidence, if they are replaying Battlefield Britain as a genuine alternative, then it contradicts the BBC's efforts to present a solid argument for presenting history and archaeology on the TV. But that can't be right; it is relegated to the midnight slot! But having said that, given that the BBC are re-running it, shows that the producers care little for the critical review of the content of the program, and simply the ratings that big names can pull.

If I was in charge of this program, I would make a lot more of the historical and archaeological evidence actually mentioned on the program, and I would have used more experts from various institutions as well, while cutting down on the actors, although not getting rid of them (they were overused a bit). If I was in charge of the BBC, I wouldn't have this program shown at all. Instead, I would recommision it, maybe with Dan and Peter Snow, because I am sure that they not entirely to blame, and we all learn from our mistakes. Besides, they are not the main fault of the program; if arcaheologists were on the program I would still slate it for the lack of factual accuracy. If archaeology is not on the TV being broadcast and reminding the public about it's importance to telling us about understanding the past, then we will lose it! 

Rant over, please leave any comments below!

References:

Bardakjian, Kevork, 1985, Hitler and the Armenian Genocide,  http://www.armenian-genocide.org/Education.31/current_category.118/resourceguide_detail.html, Cambrdige, Massachusetts, Zoryan Institute.

Pegg, J., 2010, Landscape Analysis and Appraisal: Church Stowe, Northamptonshire as a Candidate for the Battle of Watling Street, craft:pegg, London

Appendix:
Image one: Author unknown, last accessed 19/12/2013, Battlefield Britain, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battlefield_Britain, last updated 15th December 2013.

Link:

http://archserve.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/barby-hill-excavation-introduction-and.html

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