Julie Graham thumbnailBonekickers And Beyond: The Wessex Archaeo-Mystery Drama

The City of Bath, location of "Wessex University," home base of the Bonekickers team. The script introduces the Georgian city as a “blanket of bright stone nestled in the cleave of an English valley.”

the Bonekickers team Now BBC’s mad-archaeology series Bonekickers is definitely (and some would add mercifully) over, the team having quickly solved mysteries ranging from the True Cross to Excalibur, will there be a more sensible treatment of remaining local archaeological mysteries?
BBC One’s prime-time archaeological-adventure drama series was officially abandoned last month, with the announcement there would be no Bonekickers Series Two. (Reportedly, the writers told the Bath Chronicle that the hoped-for phone call from the BBC hadn’t come.) Apparently, somebody at the BBC worked out if the viewing figures continued to drop at the same rate as they had between episodes, there would be no viewers left by the end of another series. It does have a certain devoted following, among archaeologists and others who find its historical howlers unintentionally funny, rather like English Heritage’s recent fiasco with its “Horrible Histories” book on Stonehenge. While EH ordered The Ghastly Book Of Stonehenge pulped, Bonekickers lives on as a DVD issued before the series run was over, and no doubt endless reruns on Freeview channels.
Our interest here of course is in the series’s regional basis. The protagonists were notionally based over at Bath [pictured above], with the U. Of Bath portraying the fictitious Wessex University. “Wessex” being the well-known historic (since Alfred the Great) name for the region, the series had potential tie-ins to local history and heritage all over.
In the event, this potential interest was scarcely touched upon. In fact, a review of the series’s approach and the resulting reaction makes a useful case study in how not to treat this type of subject matter next time around. For this is a popular genre, and the Wessex region is archaeologically one of the richest in Britain for sites. I’ve therefore put together this feature webpage to allow adequate space for a review of what went wrong, plus suggestions for any future attempt.

  Call Yourself A Bonekicker?
The BBC commissioning editor said Bonekickers would “take history and archaeology and make it sexy, accessible and exciting”. The series debuted to coincide with National Archaeology Week 2008 in July which included an event called “Be A Bonekicker”. The U. Of Bristol, whose Head of Archaeology Dr Mark Horton provided ‘official supervision’ of depictions of archaeological practice, were originally happy to be credited onscreen – there being an obvious student-recruitment potential. However within weeks such links were being played down. One archaeologist who emailed me said both Bristol University and the Salisbury-based public-education trust Wessex Archaeology were soon desperately trying to distance themselves from it, due to its notoriety over the ‘rubbish’ way it portrays the profession (cf the team routinely wreck sites and destroy relics). In fact, early on archaeologists set up a 200-member Facebook site called “Bonekickers Is An Embarrassment To Archaeology!” whose mission statement was “defending the honour of our profession” against this “farce.”
The academics’ fear is no doubt that students will be recruited who want to play at archaeology like the onscreen squad, and these wannabe bonekickers will go at sites like children opening Xmas presents, ripping them open and then abandoning them when nothing sensational is found within the first 5 minutes. For such instant finds happen in each episode of the series, but not in reality, where a dig can take weeks, months, even years of painstaking work. (C4’s documentary series Time Team, which began with quick “salvage” digs just before the builders moved onsite, is no doubt the quick-fix inspiration here.) While it claims to be "CSI meets Indiana Jones,” the CSI-type forensic-archaeology procedural aspect is here ridiculously speeded-up. Overall, Bonekickers is the Famous Five approach to archaeology.
Julie GrahamUnlike the Famous Five (4 kids and a dog), the team of 4 don’t have an actual dog to help dig holes and locate clues, but they do have an academic minder (played by Michael Maloney), whose name is Dr Daniel (rhymes with spaniel) Mastiff. In each episode, the maverick team of 4 (Mastiff shows up later, to rescue them in his dogged managerial way) are sent to an already-excavated site (thus saving some screen time). Within minutes, they discover the site the key to a long-unsolved historical mystery. Following clues, they soon piece together a scenario (which archaeological evidence alone could in fact never support) and pursue it to its dangerous conclusion, for sinister forces quickly appear and menace the team.
To bring the trail of evidence to life, we see the relics morphing over time à la The Da Vinci Code film, with a CGI-enhanced flashback to the moments before the relics were buried. The four run into jeopardy (to use the generic TV-producer jargon) from some modern-day vested-interest group who are somehow onto the find in a flash and who menace them throughout, burying people alive or beheading them, that sort of thing. (As BBC publicity put it, the finds “unlock dangers and mysteries in the present.”)
They battle these dangers, and somehow (given their unheroic passivity when faced with danger) win out. Then (abandoning the site and any associated paperwork), the team go off to the pub bickering about their sex lives and who’s bonking whom. (The BBC site tried promoting an online tie-in ‘drinking game’.) There was also an ongoing inter-personal crisis to do with obsession on the part of the team leader, lecturer Dr Gillian Magwilde, whom publicity describes as “a fiesty Celt” - presumably to explain her general sulkiness. (Scots actress Julie Graham is now the mother-figure in BBC1’s Survivors remake, which is reportedly causing people to have nightmares that not only will their loved ones die in a plague, but they will end up with her bossing them around.) As the press release put it, "Running through the series is a greater puzzle that Gillian keeps to herself for fear of ridicule: the hunt for the greatest treasure in the history of Humankind [sic], a hunt that drove her brilliant mother insane and a hunt that pits her wits against her academic nemesis – the arrogant, urbane TV historian, Professor Daniel Mastiff ... – and that will culminate at the end of series one in a desperate race for glory which may destroy her in the process." (Note the reference to "series one" - obviously a 2nd series was originally planned as part of what scriptwriters call the story "arc.")

In response to the onslaught of complaints, the series’s archaeo advisor Dr Horton, who is what they call a ‘TV archaeologist’ (a co-presenter on BBC’s Coast series etc), posted a rebuttal on the BritArch forum. He said Bonekickers was really ‘a drama that uses the past to make some comment on the present’, with the archaeology just ‘a vehicle’ that needs to be ‘bent’ in places to make the drama work. He added those who had a bone to pick with it were merely a few hundred “anoraks” out of 6.8 million viewers. He said those criticizing it are humourless and don’t understand it is a comedy. He said the casual way bones were treated onscreen (befitting the series’s title) was immaterial, as they were merely plastic props. He explained “the massive public outcry” was simply because people didn’t expect what was coming, and that was “the real fun bit”, tee hee.
People clearly didn’t expect to see, in the first episode, a modern-day evangelical Christian order beheading a Muslim, done on the basis the Templars did this during the Crusades. (Well, if not, they did it in that Ridley Scott film about the Crusades anyway – same thing, really.) My own guess is the producers were also emulating BBC’s previous gang-of-cool-young-professionals drama, Spooks. This went into the headlines overnight when in episode one, a woman had her head stuck in a hot chip fryer by nasty fascists. The series got immediate attention, and recruitment applications shot up for the real MI5, which has exploited the interest since on its official website.
'the encyclopaedic but terminally louche Professor Gregory Parton' The writers seem to have thought they could script it with a spoof subtext, which they could point to, as they did in defence against anyone who had a bone to pick with them. There is the ‘doggy’ in-joke already mentioned from the Famous Five. The team’s oldest character and closest match to an “Indiana Bones” figure (he wears an Aussie drovers coat and matching hat), is the "encyclopaedic but terminally louche Professor Gregory Parton", nicknamed "Dolly" Parton. The actor playing him says Parton is based on the series archaeological adviser, ‘who literally froths at the mouth.’ (Who could that possibly be?) The series title almost seems a joke - as Guardian TV critic Nancy Banks-Smith pointed out, it’s “only one syllable away from being Bonkers" (say Bonekickers quickly over and over). In the event, the headline writers mainly went for puns based on kicking –as in ‘Bonekickers Gets Another Kicking.’
Despite the claim all but a few hundred ‘anoraks’ out of 6.8 million viewers loved it, this was the initial series viewing figure, which quickly dropped off, while reviews have been consistently negative in regard to both plot and character. Horton claimed the show‘s “wooden characters” were simply a short-hand way of creating strong, idiosyncratic leads. Comments were often negative even on the official “fan” site the BBC set up. (Wikipedia has an account of the series's reception here).

Bones Of Contention
The Bonekickers team study artefacts on the light tableThe programme also dug itself into a large hole through its official publicity, which foolishly claimed Bonekickers is ‘Based in fact.’ This predictably backfired on the BBC just as Dan Brown’s similar “Fact” claim in his Da Vinci Code preface had. The BBC press release implied the script claims were backed by academia (or should we use the series' own term acamedia?): "Based in fact, the series has on board the expertise of Professor Mark Horton, Head of Archaeology at Bristol University, a specialist in the archaeology of historical societies around the world and Bonekickers consultant on the factual evidence and background to the relics featured in each episode.") The statement added: "Set against the backdrop of Bath, a city steeped in 3,000 years of history, each week the team uncovers a compelling mystery from the past that tells viewers something profound and revelatory about the present. Archaeology has never been so dramatic... our archaeologists investigate huge mysteries that may start in the past, but which are very much still alive and dangerous today."
In the 6 episodes, the team uncovered 6 conspiracy and coverup ‘secrets’ at sites around the West Country. These were to do with the True Cross and modern ‘Knights Templar’ (a real church with KT graves was shown); Boudicca’s supposed secret love affair with a Roman officer and the Great Fire of Nero’s Rome (a lost cave under Bath’s Roman baths), American Revolutionary War era slave-trade secrets (Bristol Channel etc), a relic that could have ended WWI, and finally Excalibur (Glastonbury plus Wells Cathedral and Bishop’s Palace)."From the excavation of murdered 18th-century slaves to the possible discovery of the True Cross, each episode is a window on a period of history but, more importantly, a reflection on how we live now."
All the ‘historical’ scenarios presented are nonsensical, merely attempts to pile up stock modern-conspiracy situations from a hodge-podge of genres. (For an earlier feature I wrote on how such potboilers as The Da Vinci Code were really crossover genre products that were also "film-friendly," see 'The Da Vinci Formula'.) As co-star Adrian Lester, who wanted a 2nd series to explore overseas locales, put it, it’s "CSI meets Indiana Jones ... the crime procedural show, there's science, conspiracy theory – and there's a big underlying mystery.")
For example, in one episode, some corpses are found inside a British WWI tank buried at Verdun (“A war crime!” exclaims Dr Magwilde). Clues found in a diary lead to the finding of Joan Of Arc’s tomb nearby, with skeleton intact (notwithstanding the fact she was burnt at Rouen and her remains thrown in the Seine). Supposedly this was “a weapon to win the war.” The scenario is that if the tomb had been found in 1916, WWI would’ve at once ended via a French-German anti-British alliance. So all the British tank crew who had found the tomb, who all happened to be archaeologists and associates and antiwar activists, were murdered by “patriots” from the British Officer Class, who buried them inside the tank. This supposedly also explains the antagonism the team face from a party of German archaeologists, someone setting fire to the team’s tent etc., and the MOD’s ongoing cover-up ending with an Army officer lining up the team to be executed inside the tomb.
Any real controversies (which certainly exist) over relics are of course avoided by the series, even down to the team composition. For while the team reflects Britain’s socio-cultural diversity due to the BBC’s role-modelling approach, with a strong female lead character and a team representing an ethnic cross-section of modern Britain, archaeology as a profession is known as traditionally a "blokish" one, until not long ago a no-go area for women career-wise. (An independent archaeology blog has spoken of the real hazards archaeologists face - a climate of professional anxiety which discourages disclosure of finds for years and even sees non-conforming websites being blocked or interfered with for fear they will lead to controversy or undue recognition of a junior.)
The factual-basis claim also limited options for further story ideas, and the producers may have run out of possible scenarios they could claim as fact-based. The Times wondered ‘if there were any mysteries left the show could "dumb down".’ Script possibilities here are hemmed in by the Indiana Jones franchise, including the Young Indiana Jones TV series (which covered substantial ground historically speaking, with young Indie meeting TE Lawrence and so on), The Da Vinci Code, DVC’s nonfiction forerunner The Holy Blood, Holy Grail (whose 2 co-authors tried to sue DVC’s publishers) and dozens of post-DVC follow-ups. (There’s even a successful US TV forensics drama called Bones, co-produced by a forensic anthropologist and author, Kathy Reichs.) All these have used up a substantial number of plot ideas, and the co-authors, who created the award-winning Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes and run an annual competition to raise TV-scriptwriting standards, obviously wouldn’t want to be accused of being unoriginal ... though they were anyway.
The show’s official site actually began asking people to submit “Predictions and suggestions for season two”. Even if there’s been a withdrawal of archaeological support, and the producers have run out of ideas, or even if this was just a publicity gimmick to retain interest between series, this was a desperate gamble. Accepting (never mind soliciting) story ideas needs careful handling and is usually done via a trusted intermediary like an established agent, lest it lead to litigation, and most mainstream producers won’t accept unsolicited storylines for this reason.

Beyond Bonekickers
Make no bones about it, fascination with ongoing historical mysteries is at a peak, and the “archaeo-adventure” is emerging as a genre in its own right, which hopefully will soon develop more mature treatments. Realism is being introduced through an ongoing TV archaeo-documentary strand (about which I’ve previously blogged, in “Digging The Past On TV”).
Ultimately what lies behind Bonekickers’s demise was the writers’ boneheaded contempt for history as anything more than free source material to be ransacked for mad comic-book formula storylines of conspiracy and coverup.
In the past, intelligent dramas have been built around historical mysteries - see panel at right for local-interest examples.
In keeping with this site’s aim of promoting the south-central region as a filming location, perhaps we can suggest a few genuine historical mysteries worth exploring dramatically in their own right. Although Bournemouth hasn’t got the “3,000 years of history” Bath is (rather dubiously) said to have, BU is a leader in the field of forensic archaeology, doing serious work for example with war graves in the former Yugoslavia. (I’ve written elsewhere about the CSI producers’ suggestion of a possible ‘CSI Bournemouth’ series.) And this area has long been where explorers come to live between, or after, their adventuring exploits – like the real-life original model for Indiana Jones, F.A. Mitchell-Hedges (finder of the crystal “Skull of Doom”), who came here to hang his hat between expeditions in search of Atlantis, setting up house at Sandbanks and Fordingbridge.
If I were writing a more thoughtful archaeological-mystery series pilot or single drama, below are a dozen unresolved historical mysteries with a “Wessex’ link that I’d consider.
First, there is Glastonbury, with its association with Arthur, the Grail, the Holy Legend referred to in Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, of Jesus’ supposed visit here as a youth, and Britain’s first Christian church, with its flowering "Holy Thorn" tree in the Abbey precincts.
Secondly, there is the long search for Camelot, associated with South Cadbury, where a yet-unexplained find was made by archaeologists in 1968, which may be connected to Glastonbury.
There is the massive figure of the Cerne Giant, whose original identity has never been established, despite academic attempts to write him off as a modern concoction.
There are also the white horse figures carved on the Wessex downs, some modern, but a few of undateable antiquity, which may not even be horses at all, but another type of creature entirely.
There is England’s largest parish church, Christchurch, with its own "mystery hill" and version of the Holy Legend, as well as its ghostly “last Templar” mystery (of which I’ve written elsewhere).
There is the linked World Heritage Site of Avebury & Stonehenge, about which theories are suddenly appearing thick and fast.
There is the mystery of how Hengistbury Head’s name was changed to that of the leader of the Anglo-Saxon conquest - supposedly by ignorant peasants who would never have heard of Hengist, but somehow thought he was buried there.
There’s the mystery of the vanishing Doomsday castles and the link to Arthurian legend with its elusive “Grail Castle.” (See also the page on ruins.)
There is the slaying of King William Rufus in a New Forest “hunting accident”, and the theories concerning political conspiracy and pagan “red king” ritual or sacrificial "witchcraft killing."
More recently there is the discovery of what archaeologists call (rather amusingly) the "Solent Atlantis".
There is the mystery concerning the founding legend of the Wiccan movement, and the claim of a fatal wartime ceremony in the New Forest to repel invasion in 1940 by magical means suggested by Aleister Crowley.
Finally, there is Portland (a 2012 Olympics venue), whose inhabitants had unique customs such as open premarital sex, and who in the 19th-C. refused to sell land to the English Crown on the grounds they were not English, but belonged to a much more ancient people. 
... There are still other such regional mysteries that are too complex to summarise here, but as the saying goes, this is enough to be going on with.

Why do almost all the Avebury stones seem to have faces on them?
... On the other hand, they say that into every life a little mystery should fall. For instance, why do almost all the Avebury stones seem to have faces on them?
The Avebury stones seem to have faces on them

Case Study - Episode One, "Army Of God"
To try to get some sense of the series, I got hold of the script of the first episode from the BBC. In "Army Of God," we meet the team, starting with Wessex U. lecturer Dr Gillian Magwilde (“Cargo pants, t-shirt and bomber jacket. Her hair an excited tangle of Celtic curls.”) Next is Professor Gregory Parton, a middle-aged prof with a “dirty twinkle in his eye” (“Think of him as Google with a beer-gut” is how he is introduced in the dialogue) Then there is Dr Ben Ergha, a 30-something Londoner of West African descent, who is described for some reason as “a geezer with a PhD.” ('geezer' being a now-dated term for an old bore.) Just joining the team is intern Vivienne, who proves to be there to spy on Dr Magwilde. (It turns out later she regards her as her long-lost sister, whom she never knew she had - if you see what I mean.) “Vivienne - the witch of Arthurian legend,” comments Dr M. presciently.
Also, we meet their boss, the new Head of Archaeology at Wessex U., celebrity archeo-historian Prof. Daniel Mastiff, a promoter of the new concept of Acamedia i.e. Academia + Media. (On the wall of his office is a signed photograph of himself on a Time Team dig with Tony Robinson.) He specializes in the history of sex, being author of such historical bonk-busters as The Secret Perversions Of Henry VII, Yes Tonight Josephine: The Appetites Of An Emperor, and Sex Rites Of The Ancients: From Aztec Nuptials To The Virgin Molestations Of Caligula - “soon to be a Channel Five series.” (“Antiquity with tittys and front-bottoms” comments Magwilde). So much for scene-setting and character setup.
Plotwise, they discover, during excavation of a new housing development, a piece of wood which tests indicate is “Two thousand year old wood from the Holy Land”. It is a relic of the True Cross, lost while being transported by the Knights Templar (“the Church’s SAS troops... Not to mention the mass­ slaughterers of countless Muslims”) to a secret location, as their order was being disbanded “when the Crusades went tits up.“
Flashback: The KTs are riding across Somerset when they are ambushed by ‘Saracens.’ Clues in a manuscript left by the Grandmontine order indicate the ‘Saracens’ are really “English Mercenaries in disguise ... in the pay of the Grandmontines .... the jammy sods.“ (Note: The Grandmontines were a hermit-like priestly order, not otherwise known for being jammy sods.) The idea is people would believe the Saracens had taken it back. “The Templars were being wiped out. The monks couldn’t trust them with the Cross. They made it look as though Saracens had killed them and taken the Cross back to the Holy Land.” (Not explained is why they would be sent so far to recover a relic not recognized by their own religion.)
Adds Ben, “But that’s not the best bit. There’s organic residue in the wood. Soaked in. Like blood....” The blood is on an iron nail – could that be a clue? There’s some dialogue about finding possible DNA traces in the blood (though whose blood the sample would be matched up to is not mentioned). There’s a suggestion touching it effects a miracle health cure. “This is re-writing the books stuff," comments one of the team. (Though a more apt line turns up a few pages later: “Why turn a scientific enquiry into a Cecil B de Mille film?")
They are menaced by right-wing Christian group The White Wings Alliance, who believe “the country needs to restore the values and principles of the Knights Templar.” They behead a Muslim to demonstrate this. (The script seems to have confused Templars with Crusaders and the BNP. The Templars if anything were considered by some to be too pro-Saracen – a number of them spoke Arabic and were suspected of having heretical Islam-inspired religious views.)
The team head off in their Land Rover to fight it out with the White Wings head maniac at a remote KT church. They win out, go off to the pub, and throw the supposed relic of True Cross into the fireplace. Sorted.
(Next on Bonekickers: “When the bodies of presumed slaves are found in the Bristol Channel, matters take a turn for the worse for the team as they encounter a conspiracy involving Maroons, the Siege of Yorktown and a man intending to be the first black President of America.” )
Adrian Lester as Dr Ben Ergha
The Wessex Archaeo-Mystery Drama
The region has of course been used in a number of novels and film-TV dramas built around some type of archaeological mystery.

In Fiction
Until recently, when the 'forensic' crime novel and drama flourished, mysteries in fiction had little relation to archaeology as a profession. (As Sean Connery playing Indiana Jones's dad in The Last Crusade, says indignantly amidst a battle with Nazis in tanks, "This is not archaeology!") The traditional stories were usually about hunting treasure, with a 'finders, keepers' ethic, the treasure the impoverished hero's dare-all route to worldly fortune.
Juvenile adventure stories where the young hero uncovers clues to a treasure or fortune go back at least to JM Falkner's 1898 classic smuggling-era tale Moonfleet. Here, in a sea-swept village by Dorset's Chesil Bank, the orphan hero finds a treasure-hunt clue among floating coffins in a flooded church vault, which will lead him to a treasure hidden down the well of Carisbrooke Castle on Wight. The pirate/smuggler treasure map was a favourite of boys' adventure stories from Treasure Island on, but the need to plot out the treasure-map landscape clues led writers to taking an interest in the new science of archaeology.
Quasi-archaeo mysteries also sometimes feature in the genre of story (which dates back at least to Kipling's Puck Of Pook's Hill), where children spending a summer in the country discover their new home, or perhaps some nearby secret spot, holds a supernatural secret. Usually the place is haunted by a figure from the past, who is trapped in that time and place. He, she, or it acts as a gatekeeper and guide, or else the place itself is a secret doorway taking you into the past. However, in the 'edifying' school of children' stories, the actual archaeo aspect is usually minimal. This is because the 'treasure' the tutelary spirit guide offers is not something you dig up, but an intrinsic reward such as a growth in understanding, perhaps a sense of national heritage (as in Kipling), or a lesson on the dangers of wishing for worldly things. An example of this, whose tv adaptations were filmed in Dorset, is the 'Psammead' trilogy (Five Children And It etc) by Fabian Socialist and 'Railway Children' author Edith Nesbit, where an ancient being emerges from a sandpit the children disturb.
The Boy Scouts Movement began with a local campout (Brownsea Island 1907), and when England's most famous writer of ghost stories, Oxford don MR James, was invited to provide a story
for the local Eton Scouts campout above Worbarrow Bay in the Purbecks in 1927, he concocted one set there called 'Wailing Well,' which warned of the grim fate awaiting the youth who foolishly answered the call of the supernatural. In the Victorian era, such early quasi-archaeo tales crossed genres with the 'sensation novel', where the payoff often comes via a spot of amateur archaeology. The secret of the past is discovered when the floorboards are taken up to reveal a skeleton or tin box containing a revealing document such as a murder confession.
A more modern author who developed the 'portal to the past' theme in both adult and children's literature was Penelope Lively. Her nonfiction book The Presence Of The Past: An Introduction To landscape history was published the same year as her A Stitch In Time, Whitbread Award winner for best children's book 1976. This has a girl holidaying in Lyme Regis who encounters a girl her age from the previous century, an experience that helps her to a more mature view of life. Lyme was a gateway to the past in the Victorian era for the new sciences of geology and paleontology (fossil bones), and features in related novels and dramas. (The French Lieutenant's Woman, set in 1867 Lyme, features many elements of the Victorian 'sensation' novel which it also reflects upon from a modernist view, though here the hero's entanglement with a mystery woman soon puts an end to his scientific fieldwork.)
When the English detective novel began to flourish, it naturally drew on England's heritage-rich landscape, building plots around treasure from ancient mounds etc. One author who often used Dorset and New Forest backgrounds was Gladys Mitchell, in her 'Dame Adela LeStrange' series of 66 books (1929-83). Her detective is a semi-retired Home Office psychiatric consultant based in the New Forest village of 'Wandles Parva.' 'The great Gladys,' as poet Philip Larkin called her, was 'remarkable among writers for her use of supernatural and folk elements'(Dictionary of British Women Writers). She indulged her 'special feeling for the mystical nature of things British ... lifelong fascination with the antiquities of the British Isles and their accompanying superstitions'(20th Century Crime & Mystery Writers). Titles like The Devil's Stones, The Devil At Saxon Walls, The Dancing Druids, Merlin's Furlong, Skeleton Island, and Uncoffin'd Clay give a flavour of her approach.
In the 1980s, as cash-rich urban dwellers began to move out of London to fix up country cottages, we also get contemporary horror works like The Magic Cottage (1987), by bestselling genre author James Herbert, where a couple discover their New Forest dream cottage is actually home to ancient powers. First Light, by cult London author (Hawksmoor) Peter Ackroyd, concerns the impact on an astronomer of the discovery of a prime-condition royal Neolithic burial mound on the land of a Dorset farming family who are its guardians.

In Film & TV Dramas
(For details of any films of interest, see our Productions Chronology page)
Many plots just lazily invoke some old legend as a mystery overlay for a criminal enterprise. A familiar example is where local smugglers play ghosts and ghouls in haunted churchyards etc to discourage late night passers-by, as in the 1954 b&w children's adventure drama The Black Rider, set around Corfe Castle ruins. Any genuine local legends mentioned are just there to set the story up and are not pursued.
Horror stories by writers like MR James did more with the archaeo-mystery aspect. A classic horror film from an M.R. James story dramatising the dangers of conjuring up ancient forces, and which uses Stonehenge effectively [see screen shots below], is the 1958 Night Of The Demon, directed by Jacques Tourneur and expanded (by Hitchcock scriptwriter Charles Bennett) from the MRJ story.

2 Night Of The Demon screenshots

A late 'Quatermass' story made for Thames TV, starring John Mills, and set at a (fictional) megalithic site in the Wessex countryside lacks the coherence and excitement of Nigel Kneale's original, London-set, Quatermass And The Pit (where an archaeology team unearths a 5 million year old find which rewrites human history and unleashes uncontrollable forces), this late entry in the series limiting its archaeological aspect to an astronomy tie-in.
The one major work here since the 1958 MR James adaptation mentioned has been Malcolm Bradbury's adaptation of Kingsley Amis's ghost-story-as-contemporary-Faustian-parable novel, The Green Man. This 3-part 1991 BBC-TV/A&E production shot in West Dorset was a favourite project of its star Albert Finney, who held the rights. It has the alcoholic and lecherous owner of the Green Man inn, a former manor-house, succumbing to manifestations that lead him to excavate the 17th-C ghost's grave to retrieve a talisman which will give him power over women - with disturbing results. (Amis said his story was made up, but that after he wrote it, he experienced an unnervingly similar nightmarish haunting.) Along with Robert Holdstock's unfilmed Mythago Wood, it's one of the few novels to convey the excitement some feel at the possibility of making contact with a past that is somehow still alive.
There is a much less frightening version of the same premise in children's stories where the local ghost at the country house the child or children spend their holiday at acts as a guide or gatekeeper to a portal to the past. This children's genre makes its latest screen appearance in the upcoming drama From Time To Time, shot at Athelhampton House and other Dorset locations. Scripted and directed by Dorset-resident writer Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park etc), and starring Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall, Hugh Bonneville, and Harriet Walter, this is an adaptation of the 2nd in Lucy Boston's popular 1950s 'Green Knowe' novels about a boy discovering his ancestral home is a doorway to the heritage of the past.
As their plots involve some hidden relics, we should also mention the Harry Potter films here, since Lacock Abbey and village in Wiltshire have been used in all the films to date, including the latest, now scheduled for a July 2009 release.
A possible upcoming project of interest here is that Ridley Scott, the director of the Crusades drama Kingdom Of Heaven, is planning an SF-thriller called Stones, on Stonehenge as part of a worldwide ancient communications network which suddenly ‘triggers’ – rather like the monolith in 2001.'

The Green Man DVD cover



Glastonbury Tor,seen from South Cadbury hill-fortGlastonbury Tor, seen from South Cadbury hill-fort

Email Us | Back To MediaScene homepage |  Top