The news that Time Team – which has spent 20 years unearthing long-forgotten remains at the bottom of muddy ditches – is itself to be consigned to the grave came as a shock to Tony Robinson, who was told in a phone call from Channel 4. There’ll be the occasional new project, just no more digs. Is he cross? “I’m quite philosophical,” he says. “They’ve treated me pretty well.”
“I remember Sandi Toksvig telling me she only knew she wasn’t going to do Call My Bluff any more when she saw a new series in Radio Times. Back then, your magazine was the organ in which our redundancy was announced.”
And his sanguine attitude is very convincing – until he adds, “I am a bit frustrated, in two ways.” Firstly because, with repeats, he says more people watch Time Team than ever.
And his second frustration? “I think that the series we’ve just made is one of the best.”
It’s difficult to grasp Time Team’s importance. The digs – at 224 sites, from Buckingham Palace to back gardens – simply wouldn’t have happened without it. Channel 4 says it has spent more than £4m, above the production costs.
Attempts to increase ratings have had mixed success – including the recruiting of Mary-Ann Ochota, a former model with a master’s degree in archaeology. However, the show has been a big hit, sold to 36 countries and spawning a US version. Not bad for a series of men with big bellies, bad beards or wild hair.
TONY ROBINSON’S FAVOURITE FINDS
1. Anglo-Saxon cemetery, Northamptonshire
“A chap was digging a pond for his carp in the garden behind his terraced house in the small town of Raunds, when he unearthed remains of an Anglo-Saxon body. Because he’d seen Time Team, he knew exactly what to do with it — he cleaned it very respectfully and then called the local archaeologist, who called us in. We found a whole Anglo-Saxon cemetery stretching across five gardens. Amazing.”
2. Mosaic pavement, Turkdean, Gloucestershire
“This was one of the highlights of my life, let alone of my career. I excavated this piece of Roman pavement myself. I was the first person to have seen it for 1,600 years. How did I feel? Nervous! I didn’t want to mess it up!”
3. St Mary’s Cathedral, Coventry
“In the ruins of St Mary’s Cathedral — the one pulled down by Henry VIII — there was a pillar, and on its interior we found a scribbled design of the finished item. The mason had jotted down the finished design, like a scribble on a fag packet.”
4. Roman tiled floor, Worcestershire
“What I loved about this was that there was a dog’s paw print alongside the tiles. And it made me think about the Roman who laid it — and took me back to the expletives my dad uttered when a dog left his print in his concrete path in our back garden.”
5. Saint’s skull, Isle of Mull
“I think we must be the only television programme to have excavated the skull of a saint. We found it while we were digging underneath underneath the altar of a tiny early Christian church.”
Twenty Years of Time Team is on Sunday at 5:30pm on Channel 4
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