Tuesday, September 21, 2010

UK Television: Birth of Britain with Tony Robinson

If you don't live in one of the countries of the British Commonwealth, chances are you might not be that familiar with Tony Robinson.  If you aren't British and you do know him then you most likely know him only as the hygenically-challenged S. Baldrick, dogsbody to Sir Edmund, Duke of Edinburgh from the wildly popular UK comedy series Blackadder.  While Baldrick always had a cunning plan to get himself, Edmund and Lord Percy Percy deeper into trouble (while supposedly trying to get them out), Tony Robinson has a cunning plan to educate the populace.  From Time Team, The Worst Jobs in History and Tony Robinson and the Paranormal to Man on Earth, Tony Robinson's Crime and Punishment and Catastrophe, Robinson has traveled throughout Europe to provide viewers with a wealth of knowledge on a fascinating array of subjects.

Robinson's latest project is Birth of Britain with Tony Robinson.  The three part documentary series airs on the UK National Geographic Channel.  The series has already aired once in its entirety and there are more repeats of each episode scheduled.  In each hour-long episode, Robinson looks at a different aspect of Britain's explosion (literally!) into life.

This is an amazingly fascinating series and Robinson's presentation is brilliant.  He doesn't confuse viewers with scientific terminology or complicated speech.  He describes everything in perfect laymen's terms that viewers of virtually any age could understand with no problem.  Even if you aren't particularly interested in geology, this series is an incredibly interesting watch.  Computer animation and footage of actual volcanic explosions assist the viewer in picturing just what the Birth of Britain would have looked like millions of years ago.  The breathtaking landscapes and Tony Robinson's humor make this series not only educational but a pleasure to watch.  After watching these three episodes, you truly will never see the majestic British Isles the same way again!

Episode One--Hidden Volcanoes (original air date:  September 1, 2010)
Who would have thought that volcanic eruptions were once part of Britain's history?  Tony takes us on a 1,500-mile journey beginning in Edinburgh to investigate how volcanoes formed the British isles into the beautiful and picturesque landscapes we know and love today.  Thanks to the visionary research of James Hutton, the signs of ancient volcanic eruptions were discovered in the Scottish rocks.  Tony next heads to Snowdonia, Wales and surveys the area by air and on foot and, by pointing out the various volcanic eruptions, illustrates how the British Isles literally "pulled itself together".  Next, we visit Hadrian's Wall where Tony takes us on a tour of the 70-foot vertical cliff Whin Sill.  Finally, we journey to Skye to learn how Britain broke free from North America with Tony and Dr. Dougal Jerram, an earth scientist from Durham University. 

Episode Two--Ice Age (original air date:  September 8, 2010):
We move from unbearably hot burning lava to ice as much as a mile thick starting in Loch Ness.  We're not there to search for Nessie.  Instead, something much more exciting to geologists is at the bottom of Loch Ness.  Adrian Shine (naturalist, The Loch Ness Project) came to Loch Ness to search for Nessie.  He now uses his equipment to research the Loch.  Core samples have revealed the massive glacier that caused Loch Ness to be such a remarkably deep body of water.  The glacier wasn't a mere 750 feet high.  It reached at least a stunning 1,200 feet with the possibility of another 2,000 feet.  Tony goes to Glen Roy where three odd parallel lines run round the Glen.  They were formed by a great glacier that dammed the valley forming a lake and, as the glacier moved, the lines, lake lines, came into being.  Next, we head to Glasgow that once housed a mile-thick sheet of ice.  Tony explains why Glasgow is rising at the rate of about 2mm a year and just why Glasgow is full of steep hills.  We leave Scotland for the Lake District in England to see how glaciers move rocks and leave a landscape behind as they retreat.  We go to the Dales to see a hillside strewn with boulders that all tell a story of a long-ago glacier.  The Anglian Ice Sheet is explained when we head to London as well as how the Thames has actually been moved.  Excavations downriver explain how ancient climate change created the island of England. 

Episode Three--Gold Rush (original air date:  September 15, 2010):
Britain is a land of many treasures of all kinds.  In the final episode, we go on a hunt for the gold that still lies buried beneath the land.  Tony starts with the events that collected the gold into deposits.  He begins his journey in Snowdonia, Wales to study slate.  He moves on to Dolaucothi to Dolaucothi Mine, which was one of Britain's most productive gold mines over 2,000 years ago.  In South Wales, Tony explains about the Roman invasion in search of gold.  In the Southern Uplands, Tony goes to see gold that didn't hide from the seeker but, instead, was a bit easier to find.  After a few minutes of panning, Tony actually strikes gold!  Much farther south in Torquay, Tony goes to see a rare and stunningly beautiful form of gold.  At Hope's Nose, Tony visits with mineralogist Alan Hart from the Natural History Museum for information about how this rare and unique deposit has formed and why it is in the fern-like shape that makes it so beautiful.  We move on to Omagh in Northern Ireland.  Using the theory that when what is now Ireland broke from what is now Newfoundland, Canada, Ireland must have retained some of the same gold that can be found in North America.  Sure enough, real gold was found alongside 'fool's gold'.  The final stop is deep in rural, Northern Ireland:  Cavanacaw, site of the Cavanacaw Mine.  Sixty tons of rock must be moved to find enough gold to make a single wedding ring.  The product of the mine will be sent to Canada where it is separated.

If you missed Birth of Britain with Tony Robinson the first time around, never fear!  All three episodes are scheduled for repeat on the National Geographic Channel:

Hidden Volcanoes:
Thursday, 23rd September, 2010 at 5:00 p.m.
Thursday, 30th September, 2010 at 9:00 a.m.
Saturday, 2nd October, 2010 at 8:00 p.m.

Ice Age:
Tuesday, 28th September, 2010 at 9:00 a.m.
Saturday, 2nd October, 2010 at 7:00 p.m.

Gold Rush:
Wednesday, 22nd September, 2010 at 5:00 p.m.
Thursday 23rd September at 10:00 a.m.
Wednesday 29th September at 9:00 a.m.

For More Information:
National Geographic Channel Site:  http://natgeotv.com/uk/birth-of-britain-with-tony-robinson


  1. Episode 3 has just been broadcast again on Channel 4. (31Jan2011). The Omagh mine is run by Galantas who hardly got a mention by name and was missing from the end credits. It's canadian owned, but you can invest in it through its AIM listing in the UK. (GAL).

  2. Thanks for the information about the Omagh mine!

    This was an incredibly fascinating series, I thought. It was a side of Britain that isn't always focused on in every documentary that's made. I'm a big fan of documentaries to start with and when they deal with the more obscure details, I find them even better.

    Again, thanks for the info!