Monday, 19 October 2009

Bonekickers: Warriors

Having attacked issues of religious tolerance with all the subtlety and deep understanding of the issues of a bowling ball last week, this week Bonekickers turns its attention to slavery and race relations.

The episode actually starts reasonably well, with a quick view of an eighteenth century battle in Virgina, then the discovery of some bones in the Bristol Channel, in an area I went for a walk in once while I lived in Bristol – not a particularly picturesque part, but never mind. After the credits, we see Dolly (Not-Indiana-Jones, hereafter shortened to NIJ), Adrian Lester (who will be referred to as Adrian or AL, as I can’t remember what his character’s name is and don’t really care) and Viv playing pool in a bar while Scottish Woman (whose character’s name I can’t remember either, so I’ll call her Taggart) visits her mother, the mysteriously discredited archaeologist we heard about last week. It turns out her mother has some form of mental illness. Taggart shows her a card of some kind with a knight and a sword on it and pesters her about the shape of the sword, but is ignored.

Back at the bar, the news is all about a black senator who is running for President of the US (I should point out that this was filmed in late 2007 and early 2008). Taggart wanders in and asks Viv if she’s a girly girl who screams at a bit of mud. Yeah, obviously, that’s why she decided to be an archaeologist. Who writes this stuff?!

The team dig the bones and various other bits and pieces out of the estuary of the Bristol Channel, with NIJ worrying about the tide the whole time (he actually has a point here. The tide comes in very quickly and coastguard at Weston-Super-Mare sometimes have trouble having to rescue walkers who’ve wandered off and got stuck). They have to take the whole lot out in a big block – at which point Adrian worries that they’ll lose ‘archaeology’. Yes, the entire discipline of archaeology will be lost if they mess this up. They also find some iron shackles, suggesting that the bodies may have belonged to slaves (Bristol was a major port for slave trading – the city is largely built on profit from the slave trade). This gets the media ho from last week very excited, but Taggart suggests caution.

The Bristol Channel and Second Severn Bridge

Next, it’s time for an in-depth debate on the rights and wrongs of preserving historical artefacts and current place names, statues and so on connected with the slave trade, which goes into great detail on all the relevant points and includes some musings on the nature of history and the process of remembering horrific, unpleasant or sensitive things. Nah, only kidding. Actually we get a bit of awkwardly written direlogue between Viv, who thinks everything connected with the slave trade should be destroyed (and therefore presumably wants to see most of Bristol bulldozed – though she’s in luck there, the shopping centre has already gone!) and NIJ, whose answer for some reason involves Enid Blyton and the infamous gollywogs, and who is bizarrely proud of the fact he once had a brooch collection of these racist inventions.

The bodies come from a ship called Somerset (they found the ship’s bell) and AL and Viv go to see an old white man whose family owned the ship and who is, of course, a patronising, fuddy duddy old racist (played by Mr Bennet from the 1995 Pride and Prejudice). He refuses to help them because he doesn’t want his ‘forefathers’ criticised.

We’re treated to a brief history of the slave trade which, as far as my limited knowledge goes, seems to be accurate. The important point is that slaves would only be manacled together between Africa and the colonies – only a few were brought on to England, and not in shackles (I have no idea if this is accurate or not, though it sounds plausible). The Somerset was supposed to have ended up in North America.

Some random people do an African dance near where they found the bodies. Hmm. It seems the media ho has let something out. The media are at the site, with the dancers.

Suddenly we cut to America, where the black Presidential candidate is in trouble because of a rumour that he left comrades to die during the Gulf War – he explains this was because they were already dead, and some people who want to stop him from becoming president have made the story up. He gives a short inspirational speech involving a funny little dance. He ain’t got nothing on Bartlett. Or Obama, for that matter.

The dancing people want to take the bones back to Africa. They are led by a political historian from Ghana who has been invited by young people from St Paul’s (an area of Bristol whose reputation is well, not so great) and who asks everyone where their ancestors are from – which strikes me as rather rude (and if he asked me that, the answer would be quite long!). AL and Taggart answer (Ghana via Trinidad and Glasgow) but Viv doesn’t know (presumably this will become important at some point, they’ve mentioned it twice in two episodes). Taggart points out there has been racial violence recently and he shouldn’t aggravate it, but he just insists that means they should do what he wants. She also points out that bodies found in British mud belong to Britain until thoroughly investigated, so he just threatens them.

On the way home, Taggart starts hallucinating black men attacking them, and AL comes to the conclusion that someone must have spiked her drink (odd thing to do, since the other two are fine and they obviously haven’t kidnapped her or anything). This cuts to the American presidential candidate standing in front of a massive American flag, in an obvious homage to Patton, looking pensive and having flashbacks to the war. It seems to be just before a debate (possibly), but they all have to leave because of a bomb scare.

The media ho refuses to believe that Taggart was drugged and insists she must have been drunk, while she insists she wasn’t. He wants her to just give the bones to the political historian to avoid trouble. Viv asks NIJ if AL has a girlfriend (presumably, like anyone else with eyes, she’s interested) and is mildly shocked to discover he used to go out with Taggart. NIJ has discovered a fake page in records from the Somerset and eventually uncovers something saying it sank sailing to Bristol (obviously) which had been covered up. Meanwhile, ‘our people in England’ have sent the presidential candidate something for his eyes only, which a white man who I thought was his opponent but who appears to be working with him takes. The doddery old racist’s home has been broken into and his books messed up.

According to NIJ’s recovered page (I’m not even going to go in to how he found it, suffice to say it doesn’t really make sense) says that the ship was transporting political prisoners, and AL wonders why black slaves were being transported as political prisoners (how do they know they were black? Can you tell that from bones?). AL and Taggart try to enlist the help of the political historian, but he refuses (what a surprise).

Apparently in order to do something involving metal detecting all the women (which is everyone except AL and NIJ) have to remove their bras (because of the underwiring). Uh-huh. NIJ ‘loves this job’. So he’s still being a sexist pig. Viv is miffed at AL for no apparent reason (presumably she has objections to him having dated a while woman, though we don’t know that yet).

The Senator has gone to a field where the battle of Yorktown took place, enigmatically telling everyone about a button his grandmother gave him, saying one day he would understand. (What? His grandmother knew one day some British archaeologists would dig up something that I sure hope will turn out to be related to all to all this?). The Senator hands ‘Preston’ (ah, he is working for him) a piece of paper saying now is the time, and Preston looks uneasy, because they’re in the middle of a campaign and the last time they did whatever it is he wants to do, his (the Senator’s) brother ended up killed.

They didn’t find hands with the bodies, and Taggart says someone cut off their hands with a special sword (because, as AL points out, an ordinary one would produce more marks from hacking, not cut through bone easily). Then we get a weird scene with the political historian offering some young black men ‘knowledge’. It’s very weird.

NIJ is still on about bras. The bodies, it turns out, are white men, identified as such by their European diet (which still doesn’t tell you the colour of their skin, since they could have been slaves working for Europeans, but there you go). Someone drugs and kills the political historian – a white man we saw earlier in the bar. Taggart tells the media ho the bones belonged to Bristolian white people (apparently a European diet now indicates that a person is from Bristol, specifically).

NIJ has apparently cracked the entire story from his random document. He tells us all about maroons, escaped slaves who formed a tribe in Jamaica and in Virginia and North Carolina. The North American maroons escaped the plantations and harassed British colonists. (At this point, NIJ accidentally switches to a slide of a topless woman, her modesty protected only by a badminton net. Apparently we’re supposed to find this funny. Exploitation of slaves is a serious matter, but the exploitation of women appears to considered comic. Har de har har). They were led by a man called Oban (he was named after a Scottish town??!!) Oban, in exciting flashback, is played by the same actor as the Senator, so there’s that connection explained. He disappeared in the 1770s (or maybe 1781, the date shown at the beginning of the episode). Someone in the 1960s covered up the records. The idea is that Oban and the maroons ended up sailing to Bristol on the Somerset, after the Battle of Yorktown.

Maroon women in 1955, if Wikipedia can be trusted

One of the young men from the bar comes to tell that that the political historian is dead and the police say it was suicide, but it wasn’t, and there’s going to be trouble. He gives Taggart a note addressed to her that says HUN.

NIJ goes to see the doddery old racist, who complained that some archaeologist in 1968 borrowed a bunch of books and never gave them back. He works out that HUN refers to the archaeologist in question, who died at Mount Rushmore. AL and Taggart are ambushed by the Senator’s people and Taggart asks if they killed the historian and says they’re ‘not in America now’ (implying what – that it would all be OK if they were?!). The Senator assures her that they didn’t. Apparently Oban and the maroons fought the British at the siege of Yorktown and helped a great deal. And Preston is a history professor. He tells AL that the Senator is outstanding (don’t tell us, show us! Hire Aaron Sorkin to write it if you have to).

The doddery racist’s house is set on fire, but some his books appear to survive. Meanwhile, NIJ and Viv have tracked down HUN’s widow, who tells them that he acted strangely at Mount Rushmore, and jumped to his death. She told the historian that her husband discovered that some important slaves had escaped and made lives for themselves in England. She also shows them a list of dead archaeologists and historians who tried investigating the story and gives them a button like the Senator’s.

Our heroes work out that the ship must have ended up on a particular very small island, because of course, you can work out exactly where a ship would get blown in a storm 200 years later.

OK, I have to confess, I’m actually getting lost in this story now and don’t quite care enough to catch up. Our heroes sail out to the island where the ship got washed up – which isn’t actually filmed on an island at all, it’s quite clearly filmed at Brean Down, a National Trust-preserved headland near Weston-Super-Mare. OK, so the island the camera implies they’re sailing to is just near Brean Down – you can see it clearly from the headland – but still, it’s not the same place and the WW2 fortifications on the headland are pretty recognisible. NIJ insists that no one could survive out there, though the’re not far from the coast (and in fact they’re on the mainland!) and they could have swum. NIJ and Taggart suddenly find the remains of a ship sitting around in the undergrowth. Just lying around. You know, in the grass, not rotting, not discovered by the WW2 builders. There are also some plants growing in the shape of a sword, which Taggart is very excited about. They find a door with the letters ‘S’ and ‘O’ on it and then, contrary to all rules of archaeology (which they do admit), dive straight in to have a look. They’re in a limestone cave with 18th century clay pipes and a bit of graffiti saying ‘Oban’, with a body. They conclude that the maroons lived and died ‘here’ – in the cave, presumably.

Brean Down, with the island they're supposedly on in the distance

The Senator turns up, having followed them. (he’s really quite creepy, I don’t think I’d want him to be President of anywhere). They find a watch that says ‘Geo Washington’ – so apparently they fought with George Washington, whose white officers were unimpressed, so the maroons, who should have been among the founding fathers, were ‘whitewashed from history’. And all this somehow relates to why the sailors’ hands were cut off.

As they come out, some men start shooting at them, trying to assassinate the Senator. He identifies them as ‘old families, old power’. Right. That clears that up then. Preston shoot the bad guys, then the other guy working for the Senator pulls a gun on them. He shoots, and Adrian throws himself in front of the Senator, but the bullets were blanks, because the Senator already knew he was a traitor.

The really quite recognisible WW2 fortifications on Brean Down, again with the island in the distance

The Senator decides to release the story via the university theatre. What??!! In 2008, the quickest way they can think of to get this story out – because until it's common knowledge, they’re in serious danger – is via a theatre?????? Maybe Twitter wasn’t as powerful in 2008 as it is now, but Facebook was already going strong and all the news channels have websites.

Viv suddenly reveals that her dad was from the West Indies and his ancestors were from the Ivory Coast. The Senator keeps saying he’s a ‘warrior’ – good thing he wasn’t around for last week’s episode, ‘warrior’ wouldn’t have sounded so good in that context.

Taggart apparently got the Senator to autograph her boob. As you do. Then we see her moping about the special sword she’s still obsessed with. What on earth is she looking for, Excaliber?!

This episode was marginally better than the last one, possibly simply because it’s slightly less insane and I’m not personally affected by the issues it messes around with. It’s still ridiculous though, and no matter how hard it tries to be very serious about slavery and the importance of the history of the slave trade to modern politics, it just can’t get there in this context, there’s too much silly adventure and random caves on Brean Down getting in the way. It’s also full of ridiculously over-dramatic scenes of people standing around posing. I don’t know much about the slave trade beyond what I learned in school, so I don’t know how accurate a lot of this was, though I have my suspicions.

It turns out there are only six episodes after all. Next week is Boudicca and the Romans – oh goody...

8 comments:

  1. Umm, wow. Something that really jumped out at me here is that we can tell a lot about the writing on this show from the length of your synopses. For both of the episodes you have reviewed, you seem to need somewhere between half again to twice as much text as you do for, say, an episode of I, Claudius or even a feature length film. On top of all their other problems (and they appear to be numerous), they're obviously trying to cram way too much into a single episode.

    I'm assuming they chose Yorktown because it essentially marked the end of the American Revolution. Unfortunately for them, there weren't any major escaped-slave communities in Virginia; they were all much farther south ranging from South Carolina to Florida, where they were known as Gullah and Black Seminoles, not Maroons.

    It actually is possible to determine race from skeletal remains. However, you need complete skulls and you get much more reliable results if you also have leg and arm bones and enough skeleton to know how tall the person was. This is forensic anthropology as made famous by Aaron Elkins in his Gideon Oliver mysteries (and the TV show starring Lou Gossett based on them).

    That said, how do you determine diet from skeletal remains? There's that technique where they can determine where someone grew up from tooth enamel or something (like how it was determined that the person in a VIP grave associated with Stonehenge was from Switzerland), but that takes time.

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  2. The next one is even longer! (I was drafting it last night, as I need to return the DVD, and I'm away next week). Since its about Rome, I ended up adding a couple of entire paragraphs that just outline elements of Roman history. And anywhere where normally I would skim over a scene with something like 'two lovers have a conversation' I end up going into it in minute detail because they've either said something completely ridiculous about history/archaeology, or something incredibly offensive, usually to women (occasionally to Christians)!

    I totally missed how they found out about the diet - I usually start losing the will to live about a quarter of the way through...

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  3. I think the tooth enamel thing is linked to water. I believe it has something to do with the minerals in water which vary from place to place which enable us to tell where people were from and whether they were native to the place they were found. But I could be making that up.

    Re. the wiping out of the slave trade reminders. It was originally suggested that the new shopping centre in Bristol be known as 'Merchants Quarter' - given that it's where the shops are - but it was thought by some that this was glorifying Bristol's slave-trade history so it was called Cabot Circus instead.

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  4. On another interesting and slightly related note, there were some shackles found quite recently in the mud along the banks of the Thames.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/lifestyleMolt/idUSTRE57P3WA20090826

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  5. What on earth is she looking for, Excalibur?

    Well, yes. Is this not already obvious?

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  6. Ah, so we're heading for Glastonbury Tor? Should have spotted that.

    My brother once tested me with Stargate, asking if I could guess who 'Mirdan' (which is what it sounded like) was, and I had no idea. It turned out they meant 'Myrddan', i.e. Merlin, and I went on at length about the Welsh dd=th and how they'd pronounced it wrong to conver up for the fact I'd totally missed the reference!

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  7. In the United States no one would write a TV show this historically incorrect - Washington owned slaves (in fact one of his slaves that escaped fought on the side of the loyalists - most of the blacks who could fight fought for the loyalists) and Washington forbade recruiting blacks when he took over the revolutionary army.

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    Replies
    1. No, they save all their historical inaccuracy for Hollywood and schools.

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