"Last week, we tripped over the Holy Grail, and next week, we're going after Atlantis," snapped the feisty Professor Magwilde, fending off the media frenzy that had just descended on her inner-city archeological site. The tone was mocking, naturally. She was trying to damp down speculation that the team had found something exciting, which apparently leaked into the public domain after a nurse at the nearby hospice started performing miracles. But here was the thing. The hacks thought she was being sarcastic when she said this. Even Professor Magwilde thought she was being sarcastic when she said it. But Bonekickers, the drama she's in, had actually called her bluff, because that's exactly how ludicrous its plotlines are. This week, a chunk of the True Cross; next week, proof that the history of the United States will have to be rewritten from page one onwards. While other archeologists will feel they've had a good day at the office if they turn up a bit of unbroken terracotta, the Bonekickers team deal in nothing less than finds that will shake the powers that be. When they break ground, it's invariably ground-breaking.
Bonekickers is written by Ashley Pharoah and Matthew Graham, the team behind Life on Mars. For the moment, they arrive in commissioning editors' offices backlit by the gleaming dazzle of a recent hit, and a hit moreover that everyone said would be a flop. So they could probably pitch a six-part series based on the Thompson Local directory and someone would say yes to them. The raw material here, though, has a more promising pedigree. The Da Vinci Code was a huge hit, someone has thought, and Time Team is full of promisingly eccentric characters, and everyone likes Indiana Jones, so why don't we stick it all together into the story of a group of West Country archeologists who have a tendency to stub their toes on potentially explosive relics? Julie Graham plays the team leader, Gillian Magwilde, while Adrian Lester is Ben Ergha, the thoughtful science man, and Hugh Bonneville is Professor Gregory "Dolly" Parton, described, in one of the opening episode's better lines, as "Google with a beer gut".
Professor Magwilde's approach to archaeology is unconventional. She likes to squat at the edge of the trench and mutter urgently, "Come on! Give up your secrets!" There's a lot of urgency in Bonekickers, a lot of exclamation marks and a lot of purposeful striding about, but it seems to work because, before you could say ground-penetrating radar, the team had unearthed the site of what appeared to have been an ancient ruck between Saracen raiders and Knights Templar. "That's just nuts!" someone said, but, nuts or not, that was where the evidence pointed. And then the team's newcomer levered a chunk of wood out of the ground, which may just have been part of the True Cross. This excited the fevered attention of a xenophobic Christian preacher (played by Paul Rhys at his very clammiest), who was attempting to incite a second Crusade against Muslim immigrants and was the cue for a ludicrous bit of chase-and-struggle action that concluded in a vast underground chamber stacked with Roman crosses.
Itemising the absurdities of Bonekickers would be pointless, I think. It knows it's complete nonsense and is simply assuming that it can be delivered with enough flair to make you forgive the fact. Indeed, forgiveness may not even be necessary. I watched with my teenage sons and we had a whale of time, hooting at the silliness of the dialogue and the wild improbabilities of the plotting. Whether we would have quite as much fun the second time around is another matter, because while Hugh Bonneville gets some decent lines as Parton, a living fossil of unreconstructed attitudes, there's not a great deal to keep you going elsewhere, unless gazing at Adrian Lester is enough for you. Pharoah and Graham undoubtedly earned the right to fail with Life on Mars. I'm not sure that it was wise of them to exercise it so vigorously.
Last night's Imagine... film about Anthony Minghella was sweet and touching, but just a little undermined by the readiness of actors and actresses to say nice things about the directors they're currently working with. I don't mean by this that the contributors here weren't telling the truth when they said how warm and generous and talented Minghella was; he seems to have been an exceptionally lovable man. It's just that they're sometimes not telling the truth when they say such things in standard publicity interviews, and that knowledge can't help but devalue the currency of affection and admiration. The films didn't half look good, though, and I enjoyed the story about Barbra Streisand. She'd whined to Harvey Weinstein about how The English Patient was only getting more attention than her film because Minghella was the new boy in town. On the night of the Oscars, when The English Patient swept the board, she was seated directly behind Weinstein. He appears to have enjoyed her disappointment even more than his own success.