Daytime TV: Hidden agendas

Gary Day finds the presenters of Secret Britain intrusive and marvels over Anglo-Saxon treasures

September 2, 2010

The presenters of Secret Britain (BBC One, Sunday 22 August, 9pm), Matt Baker and Julia Bradbury, were anxious to clear up any ambiguity about the show's title. "It's about secret Britain," said Matt. "We're going in search of secret Britain," said Julia. Just in case some viewers were still confused, they decided to elaborate.

"This is the story of a Britain we rarely see," said Matt. "Of a Britain that is undiscovered and unexplored," said Julia. The viewer was beginning to get the idea that here was a programme about secret Britain, though much more of this and there wouldn't be time to see any of it. Secret Britain would remain "hidden and overlooked".

Still they were not done. Julia was visited by the Muse, and almost got out a harp as she spoke of her quest "to find pieces of our history that may have slipped between the cracks, secrets kept in shadow waiting their moment in the sun". Matt countered with a bit of audience participation. Would we like to show him "our secret places" and to share with him "our hidden gems"? Phrases that suggest that there is no escape from ambiguity.

Eventually we were treated to some "unexplored" parts of Britain. Julia went in one direction, Matt in another. Had they had a spat? What was going on? No one was saying. Julia arrived in Leek in the Peak District. You could see people with their heads in the clouds. Literally. Nearby was a rock called "The Winking Man" that makes women pregnant. It'll probably end up on The Jeremy Kyle Show. There was another rock that apparently lifts the devil off your back. Julia vanished under it. Or maybe it was the other one. Let's hope she could tell the difference.

Many miles away in the valleys of Pembrokeshire, tanks were firing at Matt. The army use parts of the area for their manoeuvres. Either their aim wasn't very good, or else Matt's camouflage, a green-and-white shirt, had done its job. "It's so peaceful and tranquil here", said Matt, moving further inland, "that all you can hear is the birds." Sitting at home, we couldn't hear the birds, only Matt. And that's what's wrong with the series. The presenters get in the way of what they're supposed to be presenting. Secret Britain remained secret.

Kim Siddorn is a member of the Regia Anglorum. He wants to live like an Anglo-Saxon, but since rape and pillage are against the law he has to be content with whittling the odd stick and listening to endless performances of Beowulf in a draughty hall. He was one of the people interviewed by Dr Janina Ramirez in Treasures of the Anglo-Saxons (BBC Two, Tuesday 24 August, 9pm). "The Anglo-Saxons liked bright colours," he said. He showed us some jewellery to prove his point. Had Kim got any more gems for us? No.

Janina stood in front of a display case in Oxford's Ashmolean Museum pointing to the exhibits. "Every piece tells its own story," she announced. The camera lingered on a brooch, but it didn't say a word. Janina would have to interpret. She got round to it, eventually. The serpents that adorn so many Anglo-Saxon artefacts refer to a giant snake that, by keeping its tail in its mouth, supports the world. If it sneezes, we're in trouble.

Swords and shields were heavily decorated. "All that gold told everyone how important you were," said Janina. Her finger traced the outline of a boar. They were symbols of fertility. "It was the only time in history that being called a boar in bed was a compliment." She examined the Finglesham Buckle, an artefact featuring an engraving of Odin. "Sorry, I'm getting hot and excited just holding it," she said to the aristocratic owner, Charles Northbourne. He gave a polite bow. "It's interesting that he's naked," added Janina. Charles gave a polite cough and backed out of shot.

The arrival of Saint Augustine in England meant that Anglo-Saxon art was destined to become a mixture of Christian and pagan symbols. Janina illustrated this transition with the Franks Casket, which depicts the Adoration of the Magi and episodes from the myth of Weland the Smith. She was also illuminating on the difference between Anglo-Saxon and Celtic art. The one was realistic, the other more stylised - hooves for feet because only God could create the perfect image of man.

That doesn't stop thousands of people from polishing their profiles on dating sites. The basic premise of Wink, Meet, Delete: A Guide to Internet Dating (BBC Two, Tuesday 24 August, 9pm) was that it's OK to meet people online. Pete, an academic, tells women he uses moisturiser daily. There are some things a man really should keep to himself.

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