09 July, 2008

What the Papers Say: "Bonekickers"

Gareth McClean, The Guardian

Bonekickers aside, which profession merits a good drama?

Why is telly drama all about moral and medical emergencies? Can't we have a decent drama set in a pet shop?

There is a reason, you are reminded mid-way through Bonekickers, that so many dramas focus upon cops and doctors, on moral and medical emergencies. There's something obvious at stake. There's an impetus driving the story and the characters: the urge to cure the patient or catch the killer, the desire to save or to seize.

This is not an argument for more detective or hospital dramas - it really isn't - but rather a suggestion that it's all very well coming up with a concept that can be explained in a sentence - "They're kick-ass archaeologists!" - but for the concept to work, you need to be able to tell stories that matter, that a lot of work is required to make compelling characters such as west country archaeologists, not to mention the scrapes in which they find themselves.

You can see where Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharaoh got the idea for Bonekickers from. The appeal of Indiana Jones is mighty, the likes of Cold Case and Waking the Dead deal with old mysteries, CSI fetishises the process of gathering and dealing with evidence and Bones focuses on, erm, bones. But those shows manage to imbue their investigations with contemporary relevance. Bonekickers does not, and from there, the rest of its manifold problems spring - as I discussed yesterday on Mayo on Five Live. Unlike, say, Bones, in which much the same sort of thing occurs - folk in lab coats stare at old skeletons before doing tests on them - there seems little, if nothing, at stake in Bonekickers. There's no perp to be brought to justice, no genuine urgency to the solving of the mystery. Moreover, the bits set in the past are much more interesting than the bits set in the present. So you're left wishing that you could go back, in the case of tonight's episode, to the bit with the Knights Templar instead of watching mithering Dr Magwilde demand some dendrochronology while her dreary team stand around waiting on printers spewing out prettily-coloured graphs. All of this together does not make for good drama.

Along with all its other problems - ropey lines, cardboard characters, hammy performances, nonsensical story - Bonekickers' characters just haven't been made interesting. Arguably, any profession or job or setting can be made gripping if it's done properly - Paul Abbott even managed to make journalism interesting in State of Play - but it can take a lot of effort to do so. Factories have provided fruitful settings for drama, from Making Out to Clocking Off, but Sorted, about a group of posties, sank without trace. Teachers feature in, er, Teachers but wasn't A Very Peculiar Practice, which gets a repeat on SkyArts tomorrow night, the last comedy-drama to be set at a university? Are students just too annoying to feature on TV? (Yes.) And why have there been no dramas about social workers? We're inundated with dramas about doctors but none, as far as I'm aware, about dentists (though obviously there's Ben in My Family and Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man. No prizes for guessing which I'd rather spend time with). Would you watch a drama about a group of abattoir workers? Estate agents didn't appeal in Sold but how about a bunch of accountants? Are there workplaces too dull in which to set a drama? Or, to put it more positively, where, however improbable, would you like to see a drama set?

Personally, I'd quite like to see a drama set in a pet shop, one that went on fire in the season finale presenting the owner (ideally played by David Morrissey) with the heart-wrenching dilemmas of saving the chinchillas while leaving the rabbits to roast, freeing the birds to fly while abandoning the tropical fish to boil in their aquaria. Or how about one set in a karaoke bar? Not only would there be ample opportunity for the protagonists to sing (which seems to be terribly popular on telly currently) but there'd be a brisk turnover of stories as all sorts of people troop through them, from hen parties through office dos to couples on romantic nights out. (Though it may be just me that thinks karaoke is romantic). Or how about a drama about the ups-and-downs of life in a health food shop? Or a garden centre? Or a glamorous doctors' practice on Harley Street? Oh. Wait a minute...


Lucy Mangan, The Guardian

Despite its shouty characters and daft premise, Bonekickers was curiously satisfying

There is the lingering suspicion that someone, somewhere along the line, might have been having a "monkey tennis" moment when Bonekickers (BBC1) came into being. Monkey tennis, you may or may not remember, was the final programme pitch delivered by a drowning Alan Partridge at a meeting with the TV executive who had just cancelled his chatshow. And Bonekickers, as we discovered last night, is a drama series about a gang of feisty West Country archaeologists.

Unlike the putative monkey tennis, however, it has a set of pedigree creators behind it - Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharaoh, the men who gave us Life On Mars and Ashes to Ashes - and an equally thoroughbred cast that includes Hugh Bonneville, Adrian Lester and Julie Graham, so it would be wrong to rush to judgment merely because the precis perturbs.

That said, the opening episode was a clattering bag of madness. Medieval Turkish coins are discovered in a Somerset park, closely followed by a goodly sprinkling of sword hilts, scimitars and shattered skulls. Cometh the relics, cometh the archaeologists, for some reason all shouting.

"In the middle of the bloody English countryside!" exclaims one. "We
have a medieval riddle to solve! So we start digging!"

"They couldn't have been fighting Saracens here!" exclaims another, after they have been digging for a while. "That's just nuts!"

He wants to learn to pace himself. For the new owner of the land is a religious maniac called Edward Laygass - and ye shall know him by his dangerous pallor, for he is played by Paul Rhys, who haveth, I reckon, a whale of a time throughout. He is the head of a secret vestigial branch of the Knights Templar, who become very excited when the ancient soldiers under the Somerset sod turn out to be not only their medieval predecessors but also transporting a chunk of the true cross ("This is rewriting the books stuff!").

This was also the point at which you either became immensely fatigued or immensely cheered. I have a soft spot for The Da Vinci Code and many other forms of arrant nonsense (and indeed for the phrase "arrant nonsense"), and was rather pleased with the way this was all shaping up.

Thereafter we took a serpentine course - by way of Grandmontine monks, pictographic clues in manuscripts, a spot of dendrochronology, 14th-century dovecotes and a particularly unpleasant and, I thought, wholly unnecessary decapitation scene - towards a fiery denouement in an underground chamber full of crucifixes, in which Laygass and his most devoted follower were burned to a crisp.

It was utterly bonkers but curiously satisfying. Keeping the faith for a few more weeks might well pay off. I'd offer up a few prayers to stop the shouting, though, just to be on the safe side.


James Walton, The Daily Telegraph

I suppose it had to happen eventually, and now it has. Bonekickers (BBC1) is a new drama series about a team of tough and maverick archaeologists.

Their first case began last night with the shock discovery on a Somerset building site of a 14th-century Islamic coin. “We have a medieval mystery to solve,” said team leader Professor Gillian Magwilde (Julie Graham), with a firm set of the jaw, “so we start digging.” Not to be outdone in the macho archaeology talk, her University of Wessex colleague, Dr Ben Ergha (Adrian Lester), explained to intern Viv (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) that the coin had been in circulation in Jerusalem “after the Crusades went tits up”.

To the team’s delight, they soon established that the site had been the scene of a massacre. And with that, they adjourned to the lab for some science, with radiocarbon calibration analysis results much to the fore.

For a while, in other words, Bonekickers seemed simply like a standard cop show in thin disguise, and with added trowels. Magwilde is the grizzled inspector who doesn’t play by the rules and displays her trademark gruffness in such lines as “get your stringy buttocks off my dig”. (She even comes equipped with a head of department who wants to rein in her maverick ways and is obsessed with media relations.) Meanwhile, Professor Gregory Parton (Hugh Bonneville) takes the role of the cheerfully world-weary old-timer, with Viv as the keen young WPc.

Of course, the downside of all this is that you can’t believe any of these people are archaeologists – and that the whole thing feels a bit daft. Even so, at this stage there was no hint of the complete silliness to come. You’d have been hard-pressed, for example, to guess that the final scene would feature a sword fight in an underground temple filled with burning crosses. Or that Professor Magwilde would swing on a rope to Viv’s rescue, and then consign the baddie to a fiery death.

The massacre, you see, had been of a group of Knights Templar, travelling with what may or may not have been the True Cross. Either way, back in the present day, Edward Laygass (Paul Rhys) saw his chance. As one of those pesky Christians who’d declared a Holy War on Muslims, Laygass believed the discovery of the True Cross would be just the thing to inspire his followers: two blokes in Knights Templar sweatshirts. (In fact, one of them did later behead a Muslim – in a scene that might have been more shocking if it hadn’t been so ineptly done.)

And so the race was on for Magwilde’s team to find the possibly True Cross before Laygass did. The result, inevitably, was a dead heat, which is how we ended up with that mad subterranean showdown, underneath a dovecote in Herefordshire.

Given that it was created by Ashley Pharoah and Matthew Graham, two of the men behind Life on Mars, Bonekickers might still be worth keeping an eye on after last night – but only to see if it can possibly remain so bad.


Thomas Sutcliffe, The Independent

"Last week, we tripped over the Holy Grail, and next week, we're going after Atlantis," snapped the feisty Professor Magwilde, fending off the media frenzy that had just descended on her inner-city archeological site. The tone was mocking, naturally. She was trying to damp down speculation that the team had found something exciting, which apparently leaked into the public domain after a nurse at the nearby hospice started performing miracles. But here was the thing. The hacks thought she was being sarcastic when she said this. Even Professor Magwilde thought she was being sarcastic when she said it. But Bonekickers, the drama she's in, had actually called her bluff, because that's exactly how ludicrous its plotlines are. This week, a chunk of the True Cross; next week, proof that the history of the United States will have to be rewritten from page one onwards. While other archeologists will feel they've had a good day at the office if they turn up a bit of unbroken terracotta, the Bonekickers team deal in nothing less than finds that will shake the powers that be. When they break ground, it's invariably ground-breaking.

Bonekickers is written by Ashley Pharoah and Matthew Graham, the team behind Life on Mars. For the moment, they arrive in commissioning editors' offices backlit by the gleaming dazzle of a recent hit, and a hit moreover that everyone said would be a flop. So they could probably pitch a six-part series based on the Thompson Local directory and someone would say yes to them. The raw material here, though, has a more promising pedigree. The Da Vinci Code was a huge hit, someone has thought, and Time Team is full of promisingly eccentric characters, and everyone likes Indiana Jones, so why don't we stick it all together into the story of a group of West Country archeologists who have a tendency to stub their toes on potentially explosive relics? Julie Graham plays the team leader, Gillian Magwilde, while Adrian Lester is Ben Ergha, the thoughtful science man, and Hugh Bonneville is Professor Gregory "Dolly" Parton, described, in one of the opening episode's better lines, as "Google with a beer gut".

Professor Magwilde's approach to archaeology is unconventional. She likes to squat at the edge of the trench and mutter urgently, "Come on! Give up your secrets!" There's a lot of urgency in Bonekickers, a lot of exclamation marks and a lot of purposeful striding about, but it seems to work because, before you could say ground-penetrating radar, the team had unearthed the site of what appeared to have been an ancient ruck between Saracen raiders and Knights Templar. "That's just nuts!" someone said, but, nuts or not, that was where the evidence pointed. And then the team's newcomer levered a chunk of wood out of the ground, which may just have been part of the True Cross. This excited the fevered attention of a xenophobic Christian preacher (played by Paul Rhys at his very clammiest), who was attempting to incite a second Crusade against Muslim immigrants and was the cue for a ludicrous bit of chase-and-struggle action that concluded in a vast underground chamber stacked with Roman crosses.

Itemising the absurdities of Bonekickers would be pointless, I think. It knows it's complete nonsense and is simply assuming that it can be delivered with enough flair to make you forgive the fact. Indeed, forgiveness may not even be necessary. I watched with my teenage sons and we had a whale of time, hooting at the silliness of the dialogue and the wild improbabilities of the plotting. Whether we would have quite as much fun the second time around is another matter, because while Hugh Bonneville gets some decent lines as Parton, a living fossil of unreconstructed attitudes, there's not a great deal to keep you going elsewhere, unless gazing at Adrian Lester is enough for you. Pharoah and Graham undoubtedly earned the right to fail with Life on Mars. I'm not sure that it was wise of them to exercise it so vigorously.


Andrew Billen, The Times

History, said Henry Ford, cutting to the chase, is bunk. The word comes to mind when addressing Bonekickers, the sexy new drama about archaeologists that arrived last night to entertain us over the wet summer. But let's give Bonekickers a chance to explain itself. It is has, after all, been deposited by the pens of Ashley Pharoah and Mathew Graham, who wrote Life on Mars.

“You know what history is, mate?” said Adrian Lester last night, contradicting Ford. “History is layers.” Lester, whose own history includes a spell as the best Henry V of his generation, plays Dr Ben Ergha, a “forensic archaeobiologist”. He was addressing a stupid builder who wanted to bulldoze a site that contained, goodness me, the Cross of Christ.

Bonekickers is layered. Layer 1 is the team of groovy academics from the “University of Wessex”, assembled so as to resemble those teams of specialist detectives we see everywhere else on BBC, in Silent Witness, Waking the Dead, Spooks etc. As ever, they are a cod-family. Mum is Gillian Magwilde, played by Julie Graham from ITV. She is a crosspatch with a heart of gold, masculine but sexy, a maverick, natch. Dad is Gregory “Dolly” Parton, historian, all cravats and Barbour hats. He likes a pint and women's breasts. Hence his nickname. Some day someone is going to cast Hugh Bonneville, who plays him, in a part worthy of his talents. The dull older son is the above mentioned Ben, captain sensible, who takes in hand the team's newest recruit (its teenage daughter), the idealist intern Viv. Gugu Mbatha-Raw's modest chest attracts Dad's sinister attention. Above them is an annoying boss, Daniel Mastiff, who wears bow-ties and whose crime is to write populist history books.

Beneath this festers the next layer, the forensic crime drama, CSI, Silent Witness and all that. To make this aspect work requires hard work from the writers, since the crimes, if any, uncovered by archaeological investigation tend to be centuries old. For the first ten minutes, as the team dug trenches and unearthed old coins, I thought I was watching the most boring piece of popular fiction since Rosemary and Thyme.

But eventually we reached the bottom layer, otherwise known as the pits. This was Indiana Jones-level fantasy, in which the Knights Templar were mixed up in a plot to secrete the Holy Cross in Hereford. The climactic scene had our heroes descend on ropes into a pit where hundreds of year-dot crosses lay undiscovered. Sensational though this find would be in real life, for action-thriller plot reasons the academics were compelled to set them all on fire. Safely back on the surface, a bad guy incinerated, Dolly spoke for viewers everywhere: “Now, please, please, for the sake of Jehovah may we go to the pub?”

To say I was surprised that a plodding forensic science series went round the bend into Hollywood fantasy puts it mildly, but there is a gigantism going on in television drama at the moment: the stakes are always too high, the body count too many, the appeal to plausibility too slight. Bonekickers pretends to find history intriguing but has no real faith that we viewers will. So it manhandles the contemporary into its orbit. Last night it was the turn of the evangelical Christians to be dragged in. The script, I thought, slipped into serious bad taste when one of their loony-tune number lopped off the head of a law-abiding Muslim. I am not a Christian, but if I were, the demonisation of evangelicals, not to mention the casual “miracle” pulled off by a splinter left by the rood in a nurse's finger, would make me cross. For the rest of us, Bonekickers is, regrettably watchable, bunk.


Overnights: 6.7 Million


Robin Eveleigh said...

Do you think British TV's reliance on emergency service genre, and the comparitive failure of dramas with more mundane settings, indicates a lack of writing skill?

By comparison, from the US we get very successful dramas set in, for example, an undertakers (who'd have thought it?!), a middle-class, suburban street and, more recently, an ad agency.

Where are we going wrong this side of the pond?

Robin Kelly said...

It's difficult to say if it's the writers second guessing the commissioners or the commissioners second guessing the audience.

However I do believe that even the most mundane settings can create amazing must-see drama - if you take the time to create great characters and stories.

The thing about cops and docs is that they provide an easy structure each week that the audience is familiar with and attracted to and it's hard to take a risk on something else.

However, the best writers can take that familiar cops or docs structure and do amazing things like the Life and House writers.