Somehow the title of Robert Graves’ 1929 autobiographical masterpiece seems strangely relevant. Does it express regret, or inevitability – or a bit of each? I suspect the latter. And that’s how I feel, too, when it comes to the demise of Time Team and the sad death of Mick Aston. In fact, the two events seem inextricably bound together in my mind, although I don’t believe they were actually connected in reality. Put another way, Mick’s demise did not signal the end of the series, because I’m convinced it was going to fold whatever the production company or we, the participants, did. I think it’s fairly plain now that Time Team was a product of a different, pre-internet, age when television was still king and when there was far more money to spend on the production of programmes. But I don’t want to sound like an old fart: I’m not suggesting that lower budgets necessarily mean poorer quality. Quite the reverse, in fact: less cash can often stimulate new ideas and fresh approaches. It’ll be interesting to see what the future holds. Personally I’m quite optimistic: if nothing else, Time Team has produced a large number of independent performers, directors and producers who now understand, or even better, are fully qualified in archaeology. These are the people who will take the story forward. And I wish them all the very best.
I’d known Mick for at least thirty years, but only got really friendly with him when we started making Time Teams together, from about 1995. And there’s nothing like the tension and concentration required during filming to draw people closer together. It would be an exaggeration to say it’s like being under fire, but I’m sure you know what I mean. Anyhow, I suggested the first Time Team documentary, Seahenge, and I got to know Mick very well indeed as we squatted on the leeward side of those Norfolk sand dunes, while the cameras filmed another sequence down on the windy beach. I think it was then that Mick discovered that I wasn’t just a prehistorian: that I shared with him an interest in landscape history and old buildings. Indeed, he was to give me much sound advice while I was writing two of my post-Roman books, Britain AD (2004) and Britain in the Middle Ages (2006). Over the years we would often visit churches together and in 2007 he very kindly agreed to launch the fund-raising campaign to repair the roof of our magnificent local church at Long Sutton, in Lincolnshire – which in retrospect was rather odd, as we were both convinced atheists! Mick was a modest man and he disliked being a TV celeb. My wife Maisie had agreed to take his photo, but he wouldn’t wear his trade-mark striped jumper until the very last minute, as he dreaded being recognised. So we have two pictures of him standing in front of Long Sutton Church: our ‘private’ one as a friend (in a plain top) and a ‘branded’ (stripey sweater) one for the church fund-raising campaign. I’m sorry, but we’re keeping the private one to ourselves.
I started thinking about writing The Lifers’ Club while we were filming the penultimate Time Team Series, 19, in 2011 (it was broadcast in 2012). By then, Channel 4 wanted to make some quite drastic changes to the format in a vain attempt to stop the decline in viewer numbers that was happening right across television. I don’t think the insertion of younger presenters worked, even though the two individuals themselves did very well. And I know Mick wasn’t at all happy with the changes, either. He agreed to be archaeological director for six of the twelve episodes, while I did most of the others, but we stayed in close touch. I always regarded Time Team as Mick’s baby and I wasn’t about to do anything he wasn’t happy with. I also think it helped that we had different fields of expertise: I was Pre-Roman, he was Post. In the early series, Time Teams rarely ventured into prehistory, but when they did, it was often with my help. But throughout, Mick and I continued to share a common interest in landscape history, which often came together when we made films about the early industrial era, the building of the railways, and suchlike.
My fondest memories of Mick are from Series 18, the last of the ‘normal’ Time Teams. The episode concerned was filmed on the edge of Dartmoor, at Tottiford, in Devon. We had rooms next door to each other in the hotel and shared a large balcony. I didn’t know it when we began filming, but this was the 200th Time Team, which was why Mick was the Archaeological Director and I was the on-screen expert. I need hardly add that we had discussed the dig strategy well in advance and were in complete agreement on what had to be done. The site chosen was remarkable: a nearly-dry reservoir, which held a miniature prehistoric ‘ritual landscape’, complete with a double stone row and a stone circle. A low mound revealed an intact Mesolithic settlement, which may well have been the original focus of the site – some three or four thousand years previously. Mick had a very expressive face which was rarely still. In this picture, taken beside a collapsed stone of the circle, he is having a vigorous discussion with me about whether that collapse was deliberate (as I thought) or accidental (as he maintained). You can almost hear him shouting at me in frustration!
During the afternoon tea-break on Day 3 (I think) Mick cut the special cake and we all had a slice. Unfortunately my camera lens got spattered with mud just before the ceremonial slicing, so I couldn’t capture the moment. But the cake was delicious.
I first had the idea of setting my second Alan Cadbury mystery on a television shoot shortly after it was announced that Time Team would fold. Maybe I realised that it was the end of an era, but I also knew it was something I had to do. There was so much that was good and honest about Time Team. Of course it had its short-comings – nothing is ever perfect – but it was driven by a sense of wonder at what people had achieved in the past. It was also about hope for the future, about balance, perspective and humour in a world that seems increasingly focussed on the ephemeral and the extreme. And that’s why I had to dedicate The Way, The Truth and The Dead to Mick’s memory. I think it would have made him smile and I hope it will provide a little background to the better-known legacy, of his many books and television films. The dedication of the second Alan Cadbury mystery includes my favourite picture of Mick, which I took on our balcony at the Tottiford hotel. You’ll never guess, but five minutes later we adjourned to the bar. Ah, happy days!
Both The Lifers’ Club and its follow-up, The Way. The Truth and The Dead are published by Unbound, Britains first (and best!) crowd-funding publisher. The Lifers’ Club is already available (in print and ebook), but The Way, The Truth and The Dead is still open to subscribers. Everyone who subscribes has their name included in a list at the back of the book and in all its future editions. So if you’d like to join dozens of Time Team members and production staff, not to mention a crowd of famous archaeologists and TV personalities, click on this link. Have a credit/debit card handy and it won’t cost you a fortune (£10 for the ebook and £24 for the hardback incl. p&p). And one other favour: can I ask you to forward this to any friend who might enjoy it? We’re SO nearly published (over 60% and rising). Thanks a million!