Hear no values; Henry Cole and FLO Susheela Burford at Sudeley Castle. [HCTV/ITV4 Fair Use for the purpose of Criticism]
REVIEW: HENRY COLE’S GREAT BRITISH TREASURE HUNT [ITV4]
by Andy Brockman
There is an old joke that the only “ism” TV understands is plagiarism and from the title of Henry Cole’s new pilot reality gameshow, to the faux jeopardy of a self imposed time scale we have seen all the ingredients of “Henry Cole’s Great British Treasure Hunt” many times before. Nothing wrong with that. Famously there are only six archetypal storylines, with the gameshow aspiring to be the “rags to riches” plot. However, it takes more than ripping off the title, sorry, paying homage to the title, of one of British TV’s most successful concepts of recent years, Love Production’s “The Great British Bake Off”, to repeat that programme’s runaway international success.
A successful gameshow format needs contestants the audience can grow to like and root for [or dislike and hope they fail], constantly changing challenges to maintain interest and excitement among the audience, the jeopardy of possible elimination and most of all charismatic presenters to dramatise the narrative, play off each other and/or the format and move the story on.
In spite of his track record in producing amiable and successful genre reality game shows, with punny titles such as “Junk and Disorderly” and “Shed and Buried”, “Henry Cole’s Great British Treasure Hunt” has none of these attributes.
Instead the programme tries to turn walking up and down a field looking for stuff into edutainment and fails spectacularly.
Perhaps producer, director and presenter Henry Cole mistook the success of Mackenzie Crooks “Detectorists” as being because it was about the hobby of metal detecting, when in fact it was primarily a character driven bucolic fantasy about middle aged, working class, men trying to resolve their relationship with the modern world and the women in their lives.
Or perhaps he is trying to pick up the large audiences of the numerous You Tube channels which cover metal detecting and transfer them to a traditional broadcast platform? In which case he missed that the closest most metal detecting channels get to a game show format is running raffles for metal detecting goodies and PayPal fundraisers in between items about who found what this week and reviews of the latest pin pointer.
Either way, on the surface the premise of the pilot programme of Henry Cole’s Great British treasure Hunt is that of any game show. Teams compete in a task, in this case finding stuff on the estate of the historic, privately owned, Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire and earn points based on the valuations of a commercial auctioneer and the comments of a Finds Liaison Officer from the Portable Antiquities Scheme, who fills in the legal background of the Treasure Act [but not the PAS as a whole] and nominates the most archaeologically or culturally significant find.
As such it could and maybe even should, work, but the problems in the execution of the format become apparent almost as soon as the establishing drone shots of the, very photogenic, Sudeley Castle roll.
The tone for the show is set by unsupported assertions that the site has been occupied by everyone from the Druids and Romans to the Saxons and by half hearted allusions to the possibility of there being a “Saxon Hoard” buried somewhere within the Sudeley estate. Statistically there may be, but the programme never bothers to ask how do they know?
If there is an ancient legend of gold in them there lush, sunlit, Gloucestershire hills it is never quoted and it would be unfair to suggest that the “legend” is included because, since the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, such a find has become the verbal shorthand for “Treasure” among metal detectorists and the wider public and the reference is there to show a bit of blingy leg to members of the audience who would otherwise not stick around to watch someone dig up an old tap.
In what seems to be another attempt to crank up the levels of anticipation some of the fields to be searched are given names like the Upper and Lower Saxon Settlement and Roman Vineyard.
Are these actual names from the Sudeley estate map and based on previous evidence, or were they invented for the programme? We are not told.
In fact it is remarkable that, for a format which is based on landscape, and those lush, panoramic, HD drone shots, there is no attempt to explain that landscape to the audience.
Worse, from snatches of dialogue included in the programme it is clear that some at least of the detectorists involved have at least a basic understanding of humps and bumps in a field and their possible archaeological significance, but this goes unexplained and unexplored by the programme.
Indeed, so thin, uncurious and lazily written is the programme that we are told that Sudeley Castle was one of Henry VIII’s royal residences suggesting to a lay audience the king might have lived there when in fact, although he owned the house, the King visited Sudeley just once in 1535 accompanied by wife number two Anne Boleyn.
Mr Cole then finds himself in the chapel of the castle looking at the tomb of wife number six, Katherine Parr. He is told by the son of the current owner of the castle that she is buried there because after the kings death she married Sir Thomas Seymour, the Lord of Sudeley and died in childbirth.
Seymour had been granted Sudeley by his nephew King Edward VI and Katherine’s finding herself there had nothing to do with her marriage to Henry VIII. But Henry VIII is box office and has high audience recognition. The Lord High Admiral Sir Thomas Seymore of Sudeley is not.
Of course, being thinly researched and prone to what might be seen as historical misdirection of the kind just described, is no obstacle to finding a broadcast slot on the digital programme guide; just look at much of the content of the increasingly satirically named channel History.
However, a thin script might not matter anyway because, for the producers and TV networks, a format such as Henry Cole’s Great British Treasure Hunt also has the advantage of being “cheap as chips”, to borrow the phrase beloved of another cheeky chappie presenter of auction formats, David Dickinson.
This is because Henry Cole has hit on a winning formula, at least for his own production company HCA Entertainment which makes the programme.
First he directs and fronts his own programmes meaning he can avoid paying both a director and a celeb presenter a chunky fee for appearing on screen [more if the presenter also negotiates a deal as an executive producer which is not unknown, especially if they have a good agent].
Adding to that advantage the on screen talent is also cheap. There are none of those pesky professional archaeologists, surveyors, geophysicists, finds specialists and digger drivers, which Time Team had to pay, feed and accommodate, let alone sometimes even listen to and there is no obvious recording or post excavation publication to worry about either, even if recording your finds is part of the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting.
But then the Code does not merit a mention either even though in a nod to the ethics and legalities a Finds Liaison Officer from the Portable Antiquities Scheme is present for at least part of the shoot.
However, that lean and culturally mean, approach is perhaps why they can shoot the programme in two days rather than Time Team’s three?
Even so, that is merely a practical difference. As a programme, Time Team at its best used a classic television trope, the Police Procedural, to excel at story telling in a vividly realised and explained archaeological “crime scene” complete with incident room.
In “The Great British Treasure Hunt” there is thankfully no crime, but equally there is no story and no treasure, financial or historical, to compensate the audience who have given up an hour of their lives to spend with Mr Cole and his cast.
Instead, when Mr Cole himself is off screen we are merely treated to a cursory attempts to introduce the backstory of the contestants, and a series of ground level and drone shots of the metal detectorists walking to and from various fields.
This is interspersed with ground level and drone shots of the metal detectorists walking up and down various fields.
There are even shots of metal detectorists digging holes in the fields and discovering what Mr Cole describes several times as “detritus”.
[That is cultural material to you, me and Finds Liaison Officer Susheela Burford, but she is never allowed the screen time to explain its significance as evidence of human presence and activity in the landscape.]
In fact, for an on screen presenter, Mr Cole seems to have a godlike detachment, bordering on a profound lack of curiosity, about what it is the various pairs of detectorists in this dullest of non-contests are actually digging up. In fact he comes across as a more loudly dressed, version of the bored Zeus, playing chess with the humans in Ray Harryhausen’s classic film of a treasure hunt, Jason and The Argonauts.
This is true even when we also see shots of the metal detectorists apparently digging out coins which emerge from the soil of Gloucestershire looking remarkably clean for the camera and ripe for Mr Cole to get excited about.
But there is a cheesy running gag whereby Mr Cole fails to blow a hunting horn from the castle roof to call in the teams and instead makes a comedy farting noise.
In short there is no sense of place and no narrative worth the word to engage the audience, to the extent you are left thinking that, just as the great record producer George Martin once cut up audio tape and told the technicians to reassemble it in any order, you could cut up the scenes in The Great British Treasure Hunt and reassemble them in any order and still have essentially the same programme.
The trailer for “The Great British Treasure Hunt” had many people in the archaeological world expressing concern that this would be a gruesome exercise in monetising the past. However, that fear may be overstated because the execution is so dull and inept and the finds so unremarkable, except to the various specialists who are not here to interpret the stories they can tell, that even the most dedicated detectorist might find it hard to resist the temptation to put the kettle on, or worse, channel hop,
After all, they can find their own ring pulls and financially worthless “detritus”, so why bother watching someone else find the same.
Indeed, while the metal detectorists where traipsing across Gloucestershire in the Great British Treasure Hunt, MasterChef the Professionals was showing on BBC1, offering genuine game show jeopardy, proper interaction between the presenters and contestants and the production values of a major player.
And who wouldn’t want to imagine eating some of the fine dining on offer on Masterchef. Better than a imagining being the owner of a beaten up piece of carpet strip…
Worse, and unforgivably [in TV terms], even the classic “reveal of financial value” trope was botched.
Everyone recognises the iconic moment in the Antiques Roadshow when the expert values the object from the late auntie Flo’s knickers draw and it turns out to be a Faberge jewel worth well into six figures.
In the Great British Treasure Hunt Mr Cole explains somewhat awkwardly to the audience that the FLO does not want to talk about financial values of the “treasure” which has been hunted. She agrees and is politely removed from the shot to allow professional auctioneer Adam Partridge to take centre stage to talk in Henry Coles ironic words, “filthy lucre” and to predict the life changing sums of money which will be raised when the objects the detectorists have found go to auction.
Sorry, my mistake, to allow in professional auctioneer Adam Partridge who proceeds to explain the entire assemblage of two days is worth fifty quid and a packet of crisps at auction.
It is a scene which seems to sum up the fatal contradiction in the concept of The Great British Treasure Hunt, and which critics argue lies also at the heart of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. That is the claim that metal detecting is all to do with finding history, except that everyone knows that for many people it isn’t. It’s about the dosh.
FLO Burford is however allowed to choose the most historically significant find and nominates a third century bronze Roman radiate coin. Yet the moment is undercut completely because she is not allowed to explain why she feels such a common place find is the most significant.
That lack of curiosity again, leaving you with a disquieting question: Does the producer even care why a professional archaeologist would make that choice and let alone allow them the courtesy of offering an explanation to the members of the audience who might be interested too?
Having no overarching story of place, all that is left are the finds yet even though expertise is available in the shape of Ms Burford, the finds are not allowed to tell their story.
In fact to my eye perhaps the most interesting find, culturally and historically, is a World War Two German wound badge which we are told, comes from the site of a former POW Camp on the Sudeley estate.
A few minutes with a certain search engine and the gazetteer of World War two POW Camps in the British Isles shows that this was POW Working Camp 37 Studeley Castle and that prisoners were housed here until at least 1947, with the camp huts finding other uses, including as accommodation at harvest time, until they were demolished.
Properly handled, an investigation of this site, including a gridded metal detector survey, would warrant a programme in its own right, but all the Great British Treasure Hunt allows is one wartime air photograph showing the camp which appears on screen for a few seconds, but which is not interpreted or related to the current landscape in any meaningful way; a few images of prisoners who may be from the camp [we are not told if they are] and a photograph of a German soldier wearing such a badge. Later there is a brief generic discussion about the optics of selling Nazi badged memorabilia at auction. There is no mention of the impact of the camp and those who were housed there on the local community, although such reminiscences are available easily on line.
This underlines the conclusion that the programme contains no context, no story telling, and undermining the entire edifice, no vision or ambition.
Perhaps the key to understanding what happened lies in a comment offered to thePipeLine by Professor Michael Lewis, the Head of Portable Antiquities & Treasure, at the British Museum.
Professor Lewis confirmed that the PAS had advised Mr Cole’s production company on procedure and the legal ownership of finds, but the organisation was not aware of how closely their advice had been followed, if it was followed at all. But he also expressed surprise that the pilot, which he had seen, had actually been broadcast.
We still do not know why ITV 4 chose to broadcast the pilot. It may be they had a slot in the pre Christmas schedule and this was a cheap space filler. Or it maybe the network has great hopes for the format and wanted to see if it would fly.
Indeed, be afraid, be very afraid, there are reported to be other metal detecting formats for TV under development.
However, looked at objectively, the format of “Henry Cole’s Great British Treasure Hunt” is terminally derivative, in execution shallow, at times inept and mostly and most deadly for a television format, the programme is profoundly boring.
In short Henry Cole has at least demonstrated that it is not easy to make an engaging programme about metal detecting interesting for a general TV audience without investing the kind of resources and expertise TV producers are reluctant to commit in the current media climate. Or without being a talented screen writer like Mackenzie Crook who actually makes the programme about something else entirely.
In the final analysis the Great British Treasure Hunt can also be seen as the Brexit of TV programmes. That is, the programme may not be that great, but it is a British and was perpetrated by an Old Etonian who persuaded part of the nation, here the part who use metal detectors, that he had their version of finding history and their best interests at heart, when in reality it all looks like a punt in the hope of making money from a commission, before moving on to the next project if it doesn’t.
Of course, in the case of Brexit the punt worked.
It remains to be seen whether Mr Cole will be as lucky and be commissioned for a full series his Great British Treasure Hunt.
With the department for Digital Culture Media and Sport expressing the intention of amending the Treasure Act to make historical and cultural value the overriding principle underlying the regulation of metal detecting finds, rather than financial value as is the case at present, there will be many, possibly including the more politically savvy members of the metal detecting world, who will hope that he is not.