Thursday, 8 October 2009

Bonekickers: Army of God

Bonekickers is a (thankfully) short-lived BBC series consisting of eight hour-long episodes that was on a couple of years ago. I didn’t watch it at the time because I could tell from the trailer that it was going to be awful, but a friend has kindly lent it to me so I can watch it now. It’s set in the fictitious ‘Wessex University’ and filmed in Bath, so there’s some nice views of pretty houses and things.

We open in Bath, 1307 – between the hospice and the playground apparently. The hospice and playground from the 21st century that is. A knight is killed and we see his body decompose and disappear into the ground. Then we’re quickly brought up to the present day and introduced to our two male leads.

They say pictures speak louder than words, so I’m just going to show you what our two heroes look like. The very yummy Adrian Lester looks fine as ever (I was rooting for him to be the next Doctor Who) while Hugh Bonneville looks like Indiana Jones. I mean, exactly. Well, given the overly long trench coat he’s wearing together with the ridiculous hat, maybe he’s a cross between Indiana Jones and Morpheus from The Matrix.

By the way, if you’re wondering where you’ve seen them before, High Bonneville was Bernie in Notting Hill and was also in the last episode of The Vicar of Dibley, and Adrian Lester was in Primary Colours and was killed off in a snowstorm with Bilbo Baggins in The Day After Tomorrow.

High Bonneville’s opening two sentences include the words ‘rutting’ and ‘pub’ so I think that tells us all we need to know about his character. Adrian Lester then starts telling the very uninterested builders that history is layers. That’s right, ‘history’ – all of it – is just layers. Not archaeology is layers (which would still be a generalisation, but a fair one). Not geology is layers. History. The builders look unimpressed. Maybe they’re part time historians. Adrian Lester is way too excited about the layers. So is Not-Indiana-Jones.

Next we’re joined by our female lead, the Scottish woman who turns up in everything (Julie Graham) and whose big break, I believe, was an episode of Taggart from the 80s (I think I saw it on UK Gold once). She takes the coin the builders have found from Adrian Lester’s sweaty hand into hers and wanders off wondering aloud what a Middle Eastern coin is doing in a park in Somerset (apparently ‘trade’ hasn’t occurred to her). The coin is remarkably shiny and clean. I don’t know how many of you from the UK were able to go and see the display from the Anglo-Saxon hoard recently excavated by our very own Birmingham Archaeology and exhibited briefly at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, but one of the noticeable things about it (other than the fact that even the tiny fraction on display is truly AMAZING – I got a bit over-excited) is that, because it was only excavated over the summer, most of it hasn’t been cleaned yet and is still covered in mud. This coin, however, looks like it’s been recovered from a bathtub, it’s so clean.

After the credits, we see our other female lead, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She’s very young and I haven’t seen her in anything else, so I’m out of witty remarks.

Viv (I’ll give her her character name) arrives at the dig site, where we get an actual correct statement about archaeology (you shouldn’t stand on the edge of the trench – obvious but true) and then she goes into a tent (a tent? We had a Portacabin) to be told the plot. At this point Not-Indiana-Jones announces, in response to Adrian Lester’s comment that faith is a virtue, that ‘faith is the gunpowder of humanity – sack God and replace him with the tooth fairy, I say’. So we’ve got ridiculous over-generalisation of history and a statement that borders on offensive. We’re doing well! Adrian Lester is still coming off the best so far. Not-Indiana-Jones also calls himself Dolly and introduces himself to new female postgrads by saying ‘excellent chest’. You can tell that this is from the people who gave us Gene Hunt. Unfortunately, while Gene Hunt is presumed to be deliberately ridiculous because he belongs in a 1970s which may not even be real, this guy is supposed to exist in the here and now.

The team find our dead knight from the opening sequence and get very excited about the fact he was hacked to death. Actually, I have some sympathy with them here. I once spent three weeks in the rain digging in a field in Warwickshire and all we found were rabbit bones. We were all desperate to find a real human (ancient – not modern) body. On the very last day, we found a cairn that looked like a grave, and had to cover it up again.

As Viv asks what’s going on, Scottish Woman delivers a truly classic(ly awful) line – ‘use your archaeological imagination!’ As opposed to, you know, your normal imagination. Which wouldn’t work for archaeology. She then wander into the tent and asks Adrian Lester if the knight was ‘having a scrap over a bit of skirt’. How could Adrian Lester possibly know that without any further information? And why is a twenty-first century woman now talking like Gene Hunt?! Then Scottish Woman and Adrian Lester leave for a ‘faculty thing’ – naturally, Scottish Woman doesn’t want to go and doesn’t want to wear a ‘frock’ because, you see, all women who do practical jobs must hate doing anything feminine.

(Joss Whedon made a noble attempt to subvert this stereotype once when he had engineer Kaylee from Firefly get all excited about dressing up in a ballgown for a dance – unfortunately he went too far, and Kaylee ended up in the most ridiculous fluffy pink fairy cake of a dress. Women who do practical jobs enjoying a bit of glamour = good. Perfectly sensible women suddenly acquiring the fashion taste of Barbie the minute a fancy dress is involved = bad!).

At the faculty thing, a total media whore historian is giving a talk and publicising his latest book, Sex Rites of the Ancients (‘soon to be a Channel 5 series'!). I have to say, this bit really made me laugh. Genuinely and not in an ironic way. I think we can all think of a few real examples of this sort of thing. The guy is obviously a twat, as it turns out, as he makes derogatory remarks about Scottish Woman needing a manicure (and this time, I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to find it offensive. Pretty sure). The he’s mean to her about her mother, so we know he really is a b*****d.

Viv (with the help of a hospice nurse – because she’s that incompetent she needs help from people who’ve never been anywhere near a dig before) has discovered a big chunk of wood. We establish that the soldier’s sword was a Middle Eastern scimitar.

I’m going to have to give up on pointing out all the archaeological craziness here, partly because I don’t really have the expertise and partly because it would take me all day.

We see a slightly crazy looking guy praying; 90% of the Christians who appear on this show are nutters, including a mad preacher on the TV who seems to want to re-start the Crusades.

Our team have decided that the dead dude was a Knight Templar. Viv is waving around her bit of wood (uncleaned, in her mucky little hands) and they take it off for dendrochronology. Meanwhile Scottish Woman gets a nuisance call from another crazy Christian going on about knights.

Aha! A sane Christian! (the hospice nurse). Along with a quick reminder of the Crucifixion (hmm, will this be important to the plot?!).

By this point, we have apparently established that the dead dude was among a small band of Knights Templar who fled France when the Church turned against them, and he was killed fighting a Saracen. Golly! Normally it takes years to argue out a consensus on this sort of thing! And yet that have discovered the absolute, certain truth in only a day! Remarkable! Scottish Woman hypothesizes that the Knights brought a precious cargo from France and were killed for it.

I think I’ve just recognised one of the crazy Christians as Paul Nicholls, who used to be in Eastenders and who I used to have quite the crush on (even though I didn’t watch Eastenders). And yes, indeed it is. He was in a rather good three part drama once about a young actor playing Jesus in a Passion play who had an affair with a married woman, called The Passion (Passion/passion, geddit?). He looks like he wants to join the new Crusade. He is so far eschewing the white tabard/red cross look though.

The rather lovely Paul Nicholls

One of the team muses ‘I’m so glad I’ve got a degree’. Odd thing to say (and most of them probably have more than one).

Viv shows some sympathy towards Christianity – things are looking up. Scottish Woman drily snarks that she was ‘presumably brainwashed by god-bothering parents’. These are by far the rudest archaeologists, or indeed people, I’ve seen on TV. Adrian Lester is still the sanest one among them. The chuck of wood of cedar, which apparently ‘takes it out of Europe’ and it’s from AD 32 (correctly put in the right order – AD before the number – I’m impressed). Because the wood is from the Holy Land and is from AD 32, and has blood on it and was carried by the Knights Templar, it must be... a piece of the cross!!!! No one, at this point, mentions that crucifixion was a pretty common method of execution in the Roman Empire so, whatever the Knights might have thought the wood was, that doesn’t make it part of a specific cross.

I’m swiftly losing the will to live here, so I’ll start to recap more swiftly (though I feel I must stick up for Abbots – contrary to what the show implies, they really do know what e-mail is). There’s a whole lot of development involving the crazy Christians wanting to go to war and the hospice nurse effecting a miracle cure which she attributes to a splinter from the wood (without even knowing what it’s supposed to be). The media descend on the dig and are mean to Scottish Woman about her mother again, whose reputation was apparently ruined. (I now fully expect them, in a future episode, to find her mother and show her a crystal skull which will take them to meet the giant aaaaaliens...)

I was wrong – the crazy Christians are wearing big red crosses on white T-shirts (still no tabards though). They also have swords, so they’ve missed a few centuries of weapons development there. The Crazies threaten a Muslim prayer group and their Dudley-born leader but don’t actually hurt anyone yet, then break into Scottish Woman’s flat while Viv is in there. The Chief Crazy takes over the site, which is clearly bad news. Then Paul Nicholls beheads the guy from Dudley – right there on screen (well, not really, but you know what I mean). Which is pretty gross. Chief Crazy apparently owns a manuscript containing an obscure chronicle that will tell them what happened to the cross (so now the Knights were transporting an entire thousand year old cross from the Holy Land to England?). The team do some messing about with some extraordinarily well-preserved manuscripts with ‘pictograms’ (in a medieval manuscript?) while Paul Nicholls nicks a crucifix they found. Then the team find a dovecote with six hundred and sixty-six holes for doves in it – to counter Satan, apparently. Underneath is a massive chamber (good thing they brought their caving equipment) full of crosses – they actually have thought of the fact that more than one person was crucified in ancient Rome, so they’ve been collecting them. Up above in the dovecote, the boys are attacked by the Crazies and the Chief Crazy comes down to pick a cross, but Scottish Woman sets them all on fire (call yourself an archaeologist?!). Paul Nicholls tries to kill Scottish Woman, but since he does so while they’re both swinging around on ropes, the whole thing looks unintentionally hilarious. Adrian Lester gets the best line as usual, as he says it has never been about faith, but about power, and the less-crazy Crazy cuts Paul Nicholls off to save Scottish Woman. Viv tries to save herself from the Chief Crazy by singing ‘Jerusalem’, which is kind of cool (I have a lot of fond memories of ‘Jerusalem’ from school). Chief Crazy starts hallucinating medieval knights as he dies. Scottish Woman saves Viv and the old man who owns the dovecote has called the police, so all’s well and Not-Indiana-Jones begs ‘for the love of Jehovah’ that they all go the pub (is that a Monty Python reference? Or am I just thinking of better films?)

As the crosses burn, one of them burns with a halo. It’s a bit like those bits at the end of episodes of The X-Files where you would see one more manifestation of that week’s creepiness. Only less good. Though I appreciate the thought.

The team do manage to preserve the splinter that hospice nurse got in her finger, and the hospice nurse is still perfectly sane and nice so that’s a little thing to balance against all the crazies. Scottish Woman tells her mother she’s still ‘following the gleam’. There’ll be giant aliens at the bottom of it all, I’m telling you.

Bath, where the series is filmed

I think there were a couple of places where this episode was trying to say something serious and quite interesting about faith, but unfortunately they were lost in the sheer badness of it all. I have friends who do ancient history/archaeology who really enjoy Bonekickers in a so-bad-it’s-hilarious kind of way, but I have to confess, I just found it to be so-bad-it’s-bad. I mean it’s really, really dreadful. So far, there isn’t even much in the way of soap-opera between the characters to liven it up – we know Viv didn’t know her parents and Scottish Woman’s mother was an archaeologist who attempted suicide and whose reputation was destroyed, but neither of these stories are especially gripping. And I have seven more episodes to get through before it’s over.

Bonekickers – I watch it so you don’t have to.


  1. "Bonekickers – I watch it so you don’t have to."

    I feel that way about Eastwick. (See

  2. On an interesting Paul Nicholls note, there was a scene in Easstenders where Sonia had a poster of him on her bedroom wall, despited the fact that he was supposed to be her old neighbour.

  3. Brilliant. However, by episode 6 (not 8, you will be pleased to hear), you won't want to give it back.

    You have to email Mark Horton, at Bristol. He is responsible for how awful it is.

  4. It's... I... Words simply fail. It's like they took The X-Files, the collected works of Dan Brown, and all the Indiana Jones films, and put them in a blender to produce a script a la William Burroughs. I will only add that Not-Indiana Jones looks like Colm Meaney gone to seed, which is sad, because I really like Colm Meaney.

  5. I think I saw a grand total of one episode. Sorta fun, in a hack, cheesy kinda way.

  6. I hadn't heard of 'Eastwick' before, though I remember not really getting the movie a few years ago - though the movie was a comedy, so it could get away with more.

    I am hoping future Bonekickers will move up into so-bad-it's-hilarious territory or even silly-fun territory - it will probably help to see an episode not about Crazy Christians!

    I had a Paul Nicholls poster on my wall too... maybe Sonia just really liked her old neighbour ;) You'd think the set designers would have remembered who used to be on the show!

    Hugh Bonneville normally looks quite nice - better looking than Colm Meaney, I think! He doesn't suit the grizzled look he's supposed to have here at all though.

  7. Does this mean it will be my turn to watch the series soon? I'm waiting to read the blog until I have seen it. I'm determined to not have any preconceptions about it.

  8. Laura and I think watching Bonekickers may be the new IAA initiation rite (though she hasn't seen it yet). We might need to buy Dave another copy though...

  9. Is there some way to turn it into a drinking game?

  10. Oooh, that would be fun! You'd have to be careful though - a drink, or even a sip (that's the tame version I play - one sip of wine instad of one drink!) for every archaeological error would get everyone very drunk very quickly...

  11. I am sorry to say that I do not enjoy Bonekickers. My personal opinion is that Bonekickers is NOT real archaeology.


  12. Bonekickers never claims to be 'real archaeology'.

  13. Well, of course it doesn't, but not all people 'get' it.


  14. Watched this recently on Netflix (I don't think it ever aired in the USA) and couldn't handle the pain. After about 20 mintues it went on mute so I could call another archaeologist and explain to her how bad it was; after 35 minutes it got turned off and the rest of the disks were cancelled from my queue.

    The worst part for me was the bit where not only did they get lab results in about two seconds, but every single one of them seemed to be a specialist in every aspect of archaeology: dendrochronology, numismatics, weaponry, etc.

    I was embarrassed for Hugh Bonneville, of whose acting I usually think rather highly.

  15. that's the most frustrating thing about it for me I think - these actors are so good, and so horribly wasted here!

  16. Hey Juliette, Speaking as a professional archaeologist, I have to say I enjoyed Bonekickers. Only in a it's so horrendous it's hilarious kind of way mind. Partly due to the fact I watched it in the company of other diggers on a tiny telly in a tiny room. There may have been alcohol and cake and lots of hilarity too. Which helped. Just come across your blog. It's awesome and will now get shared around!
    Best wishes


    1. Thank you!

      I think it suffered from me watching it alone, concentrating on it for work - many friends watched it together and enjoyed it much more!


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