Last Night's TV: Digging for Britain/BBC2
The King Is Dead/BBC3
Friday 03 September 2010
We don't, says Dr Alice Roberts, the engaging host of Digging for Britain, know very much about the Anglo-Saxons. This is an immense relief to me. I can pretty much guarantee that I know less than most. In fact, I know virtually nothing: pre-modern history does, and probably always will, form an impenetrable black hole in my admittedly already pretty vacant brain. I'm not quite sure what it is: mention the Victorians and I'm all over it. But take me back to the fifth century and I back away like a rabbit in headlights. People then (at least this has always been my reasoning) were just so different. How can we possibly relate?
Yet, from the sound of things, I'm almost entirely wrong. As Alice deftly demonstrated, the Anglo-Saxons weren't nearly as different as they sound. It isn't, as it turns out, just me who has harboured this misconception: it's a virtual consensus. Almost everyone thinks they're barbarians – a massive step backwards after the civilising force of the Romans – thanks in large part to the Christian propaganda of contemporary documentarians. But almost everyone is wrong.
In fact, the Anglo-Saxons were quite a sophisticated bunch, navigating cultural nuances and merging spiritual rituals to suit time and circumstance. Graves recently exhumed display Saxon burial techniques that make use of Roman customs. Newly arrived in England, the Anglo-Saxons weren't, it seems, opposed to adopting indigenous pursuits. Indeed, they did so in remarkably sophisticated ways, facing the challenges of contemporary multiculturalism with far more subtlety than many a modern-day Clarkson. Even the great King Raedwald practised both pagan and Christian rituals. Better safe than sorry, eh?
So the Saxons did rather well, all things considered. They made efficient tools, traded in coins, made quite staggeringly decorative jewellery and hedged their bets spiritually. It's all incredibly interesting. Just as interesting was Alice's interview with Dana, an archaeologist at CSI Sittingbourne. Set in a local shopping mall, this little outpost of the past allows shoppers to drop by for a tour of ancient artefacts found at the nearby Anglo-Saxon cemetery, the Meads. "Yes, we do get quite a few coming by," chuckled Dana. I bet they do: the level of access is really quite extraordinary, with tours around the labs available and everything. So, you know, that's next school holidays sorted. Phew.
Almost as engaging, though for rather different reasons, was The King Is Dead, a new spoof game show hosted by Simon Bird. It is quite possible for the entire 30-minute format to zoom by while one sits in a state of permanent bafflement. This, at least, is what happened to me. Chief among my head-scratching topics was the matter of why: why anyone's agents had allowed them to participate? Bird, yes, who made an excellent start on the comedy ladder as a kind of young David Mitchell in The Inbetweeners, but also the contestants.
Last night, we got Peaches Geldof, James Corden and Sarah Beeny, none of whom – last time I checked – were desperate for publicity (aside from Beeny, that is, but then she set up My Single Friend, so she's laughing all the way to the bank). So why, one wonders, had they submitted themselves to this? Unlike most make-a-fool-of-the-famous-person shows, it is virtually impossible to come off looking good, even if you, like Corden and Geldof, manage to make the odd good joke. The basic premise was that our celebrity contestants were "applying" for the job of US President. To do so, they had to engage in fights with vending machines, guess lines of movie dialogue and answer awkward questions. Unfortunately, there was not a nail-biting, amusing or revealing moment in it. Given this, perhaps it's not surprising that Beeny, the most boring of the three, won. Surely it can't last.
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