By: Robert Weedon | Written: Saturday 2nd March 2013
"Richard is buried in Leicester. It hasn't changed much since the middle ages. They still poo out of their windows."Marcus Brigstocke as David Oxley BA (Hons), We Are History, BBC2 2000
At the start of February, the media was all a-buzz when it was confirmed that the disfigured skeleton dug up in Leicester was indeed that of King Richard III. Channel 4 scheduled a new documentary about the discovery on the evening of the announcement in their prime-time 9.00pm slot; quite impressive, as presumably when it was commissioned the general consensus was that it wasn't that certain the dig would even find anything.
Channel 4 are probably quite used to this scenario having shown Time Team for over 15 years, essentially a half-hour long programme where some bearded blokes dig up a pot and an old brick in a field and stretch the show out to one hour by incessantly repeating what's happening before and after the three ad breaks.
Given the much more exciting topic of the rediscovery of a king after 500 years and the potential answering of a historical mystery, the one-and-a-half hour long February documentary offering, The King in the Car Park, was far from satisfactory. I suppose the title should have been a giveaway.
What I assume most people were tuning in to see was a documentary about the techniques used to excavate the site and identify the skeleton with reference to historical evidence. Instead, what was broadcast was a fly-on-the-wall documentary which was more about a lady from the Richard III Society called Philippa Langley than the dig for Richard III itself.
She had evidently been instrumental in gaining the funding and momentum for the dig, and it must have been decided early on in programme development that the documentary should focus on her "journey", by which I mean she cried a bit. We didn't see all that much of the experts from Leicester University, perhaps with the exception of the affable bioarcheologist Dr Jo Appleby. Sadly, her scientific methods seemed to end up taking second place to Philippa's personal hunches and speculation, and she often appeared to be included just because of her facial reactions to these flights of fancy. Indeed, for most of the documentary there seemed to be a weird comedy tone.
At one point, there was a scene where Philippa Langley fussed about whether the excavated skeleton (at the time in a large shoebox) should have a royal standard placed on it before it was put in the back of a van. Dubbed under this scene was a piece of pizzicato comedy-style music that wouldn't be out of place in one of those "fish out of water" challenges that The Apprentice are so fond of, where the contestants try to sell sausage rolls in Israel or something. There was also a section where she stated that when she stood on the "R" in "no parking" she had a strange sensation that the king was there.
I began to wonder if it was a massive elaborate hoax; presented by a comedian (Simon Farnaby), the programme had a large number of slightly scripted sounding lines and an overly comedic feel. It even turns out that Philippa Langley is a self-styled screenwriter and 'associate producer' of the programme – could it be that Channel 4 were presenting a modern equivalent of the Piltdown Man? After all, with Space Cadets (2005), they do have form.
It actually turns out that Richard III's discovery wasn't a hoax. You can visit Leicester University's webpages about it, and I'm sure they wouldn't make it up.
Fast forward almost exactly a month later, Channel 4's sibling More4 showed a documentary called Richard III: Unearthing the Evidence. Although billed as an extended edition of the February documentary, it was in fact half an hour shorter. But it used quite a lot of the footage of the earlier documentary, this time recut with contributions from the aforementioned expert talking heads and the much maligned Ms Langley from the earlier documentary mostly cut out.
What surprised me in particular was how its tone had completely changed. Gone were the silly vignettes, the speculation, the comedy music, the whole flag thing and the bits where Simon Farnaby remarked that the skeleton had been "stabbed in the arse". Instead, the documentary was more akin to Horizon circa 1998-2004, just showing graphs and forensic-style analysis of the process.
The contrast between the two programmes, both made by the same production team, it a great example of how much the feel of a programme can be altered just by editing it down, selecting material to fit a particular narrative and changing the cutting and music.
Charlie Brooker discussed this phenomenon on his brilliant BBC Four programme Screenwipe, noting how hours of footage on reality shows such as Big Brother is boiled down by editors to a few choice minutes of inherently entertaining, but often misleading narratives.
The earlier Richard III programme for Channel 4 was evidently going for a light-hearted tone, the latter More4 programme a serious one as befitting their maturer audience. However, their reasons for choosing the frankly absurd milieu they did are questionable.
Was it because they were hoping that the extensive news coverage would reel in some viewers who would normally be watching My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding or its ilk?
Or was it, as I suspect, because they initially assumed when it was commissioned that the dig wouldn't find anything, so the Philippa Langley 'subplot' was introduced as a way of turning it into a programme about a slightly eccentric lady's quest to find Richard III and failing? When it emerged on the day of broadcast that the dig had found what it was looking for, presumably it was too late to change.
Whatever the reason, it's quite telling that Channel 4 thought a straight historical documentary just wasn't interesting enough for a prime-time audience. As the comedy writer Simon Blackwell remarked on Twitter "if they ever discover the Holy Grail I hope to f*** Channel 4 don't make the documentary about it."
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