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Birth of Britain

I have just watched a Channel 4 Documentary, ‘Birth of Britain’, presented by Tony Robinson of ‘Time Team’ and ‘Blackadder’ fame. To me he makes a passable and often entertaining presenter of archaeological programmes because he surrounds himself with professionals who put him right when he strays from good science. But archaeology is a far cry from geology, as this programme shows. He was aided at the start by a couple of geologists, a quiet one from Edinburgh who stood with him on Salisbury Crags (while he referred to the whole rock mass as Arthur’s Seat) and a very loud one indeed from Cardiff who walked him up a ‘mountain’ in Wales (it wasn’t Snowdon, so which mountain was this?) and shouted geology at him. Robinson was just about passable when he was narrating, presumably from a script, but when extemporising on hillsides he was often at a loss to find the appropriate terminology to describe geological processes. As a result we had the occasional baffling remark such as ‘…imagine that (volcano) richocheting across the Welsh countryside…’.

You have to be very, very good to explain something you don’t really understand. Ideally you shouldn’t even attempt it. ‘Birth’ has the odd random professional helper (including two Roman Centurion re-enactors on Hadrian’s Wall… why are they always Centurions?) but none of them helped to hold the programme – or the geology – together. Birth of Britain is the dumbing-down of science at its worse. You would think, after watching this, that the whole of Britain consists of volcanic rock (some of the graphics are good, though).

Perhaps ‘Birth of Britain’ will get better. For me, the bit I have seen already is dead in the water, and as a programme that attempts to explain the geology of Britain it should sink without trace. Presumably Robinson wouldn’t (I hope) dream of attempting to present a programme on astronomy, physics or chemistry, so why choose geology? It is a complex subject that requires a geologically qualified presenter. If you want to see it done properly, watch ‘Men of Rock’, presented by Iain Stewart. This is how it should be done.

‘Men of Rock’ clips (and some of the programmes – for the next few days at least) are here.

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Avatar. James Cameron’s.

I watched Avatar last night. About thirty minutes into it I realised I was watching cowboys and indians, except that the indians weren’t ‘redskins’ but blueskins. There was even the mandatory, heavily armed redneck. Not only did it remind me of cowboys, it had strong undertones of Dances with Wolves. The graphics were so good that I managed to overcome what to me, a geologist, would normally have been a switch-off moment. The cowboys wanted the indians’ land (surprise!) to exploit deposits of the rare mineral Unobtainium. Yes, you read it right, Unobtainium. Who on earth thought up that little beauty? Their sample of the stuff looked suspiciously like the piece of galena I brought back from Sardinia years ago (I must check my collection to make sure it is still there) – though my sample didn’t levitate like theirs. Didn’t levitate at all, actually. Deja vu here.

James Cameron must have been pretty sure of himself, putting his name up front like that. Had it been a turkey it would be rather like saying Gordon Brown’s Britain or Henry VIII’s marriage.

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