Relic Questions

Posted on July 22, 2010

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I was recently contacted by a graduate who was doing her MA in Museums and Galleries in Education at IOE.  She asked me whether I would mind answering a few questions, given the fact that I had played Agatha in Relic: Guardians of the Museum, CBBC show set at the British Museum.  I obliged and thought it might be nice to post my answers here should any other people be vaguely interested.  (I’m sure not, but still…)  It is another looooong post, apologies.  Here we go;

How was the idea of Relic: Guardians of the Museum pitched to you?

I had auditioned for Rob Hyde the series producer and Andy Potter the assistant producer before. Andy had seen me on the comedy circuit performing as Darren, an academically gifted school boy- and had got me in to audition for School of Silence, their previous series. I didn’t get the part as they were looking for a six footer which you’ll know, having met me, I am most definitely not. But about a year later I got a call about this new series, then just called “Relic”. They got me in for a very intense first audition which involved improvising in character for about an hour. I guess it was originally pitched to me as “Knightmare meets The Crystal Maze”. The series was produced as part of the wider BBC collaboration with the British Museum “A History of the World in 100 Objects” which is still running on Radio 4. It was intended to choose 13 of the 100 objects (usually those with a particularly interesting history) and wrap around them a hunt through the museum, at night, to find them. Rob Hyde was keen that at no time should the viewer “realise they are learning.” Indeed, this is CBBC policy generally. It is very canny in my opinion. Especially having worked as a teacher, I can honestly say it’s always better to slip knowledge past students in the form of entertainment

Can you explain a bit about the character of Agatha the ghost and her role in the series?

Before Agatha, the series was going to be hosted by several characters. The main one being an Aztec goddess. As such, they were initially auditioning six foot blonde amazonian women. Then they thought a goddess would be so different from the children playing the game and the children watching at home that it might be quite alienating. CBBC is keen on “audience identification figures”. Someone the kids can look at and associate with. A good example would be Rose in Dr Who. They didn’t make her 30 and working in a bank. They made her 19, working in a shop. Far closer to the young people watching. That way they can imagine they were being taken away from school or a paper round by this mysterious Doctor. The goddess was ditched and, after numerous changes, Agatha is what was settled on. She is shorter, friendlier and 100% behind the kids. At the same time however she must also run the show so she is also authoritative, clever and stands for no nonsense. Quite a tricky balance.

The auditions were basically to audition Agatha as the character CBBC and The British Museum wanted to host the show. After my initial audition tapes had been viewed by the heads of department at the Museum, I did a second audition with children, showing them around the Blue Peter garden as Agatha. I had to give them facts about the garden such as where the tortoises were kept and then mix in some mad made up facts such as the whole of the BBC building is made of damp flannels. That sort of thing. The kids were then asked what they thought of Agatha, I was given feedback and we did the whole thing again with another group of kids, taking on board what the first group had said. These tapes were then sent to the head of CBBC and the same panel at the British Museum. After weeks and weeks, I was finally offered the part. But not before they called me in and got me to do the opening lines of the show in every accent they could think of. The BM were initially worried that an RP accent (Received Pronunciation, sometimes referred to as “accentless English”) would make her too fusty. A faint London accent was tried for a time (to give her a common touch, presumably) but it really didn’t work and RP was the only way forward as far as I was concerned. I made her quirky to make up for her poshness. I think it worked.

That settled, to give me an idea of what they were looking for, for Agatha, Rob told me to think of Joyce Grenfell, Mary Poppins and Nanny McFee. They continued to be big influences throughout the filming. Particulary Grenfell at the beginning. I am a big fan of Joyce Grenfell and have done impressions of her for years so it was very easy to slip into that voice. But slowly the character of Agatha emerged on her own and now she’s quite distinct in my mind.

How did it feel taking on such a character at the British Museum?

I have played quite a few lead roles since I started acting in 1997, but in that time I don’t think I felt the weight of responsibility in the same way I did with Relic. There is not just a responsibility to be good as an actor, but a whole heap of other things. You are working with kids so language has to be tempered, naturally. I have teaching experience so didn’t find that too tricky but generally speaking, actors have mouths like sewers. There’s a great deal of  editorial policy that you don’t even consider as a viewer.  If the contestants are eating leeches, you must make it clear that it’s really just licorice dipped in treacle and no-one at home should try eating leeches. It’s called “copyable behaviour”. We usually covered the rather dry disclaimer with a gag, something along the lines of “you should only take leeches if you are accompanied by a dead tour guide.” That type of thing.

Alongside this you have the responsibility to the Museum. Such an institution carries so much weight and you do feel it. The researchers put the script together every week but I was also given a delightful amount of freedom to add bits, take things out or change things to make them more “Agatha-y”. Which I did but everything is checked and double checked. Either one or two members of the Museum staff were with us every night we filmed there; fact-checking or double checking pronunciations. I remember I pronounced “Tenochtitlan” with a schwa for the final syllable “tit-lun” when we filmed the games at Elstree but by the time the show was in post production, someone at the Museum had stated it should be a very definite “LAN”  for that final syllable so I had to re-dub it in the edit. You can tell, but only if you’re listening out for it.

But yes, the amount of work that went into making the series was genuinely immense. Right down to the detail in the costume and makeup. Agatha’s uniform was handmade and every aspect was checked with the Museum. She was originally meant to have glasses for instance, but the BM decided that would make her look too old. This tied in with BM’s image as a modern, vibrant institution that viewers of CBBC should go along to.

What were the criteria for choosing the children who appeared in the show?

Diggy Hicks-Little and Melanie Taylor were the researchers on Relic and they went to schools up and down the country seeking kids appropriate for the show. They initially played some games with a large group of kids and observed which took to it the best. They selected a few and then filmed interviews with them. These interviews were then passed to the producers who made their choices. These choices were mostly based on personality. A child can be wildly intelligent and still be deeply introverted which might not make for good TV. Ultimately good telly is always the goal.

It is CBBC policy to have a diverse mix of ethnicity, gender and background something Relic entirely adhered to, as well as including one disabled child in a wheelchair and another with facial disfigurement. Kids were from all over the country, some knew one another, some didn’t but all were extroverted and made for good TV.

What were the responses of the contestants to the challenges they faced and the objects they learnt about?

I would say all responses were positive. All the games had gone through months of testing and revisions to make them exciting, appropriate and safe. I was genuinely amazed by how much the teams remembered from the visions in preparation for the final battle. You have to remember all the bits in the Museum were being filmed through the night on a Sunday as we couldn’t film when the Museum was open, months after the games had been filmed at Elstree Studios.  I thought they would not pick up on much from the detailed “visions” they were shown. Yet they would often test each other before the final battle to make sure they all had all the information to face the Dark Lord (actually just the Dark Lord’s head on a string, waiting to be CGI-ed later on).

Were you involved in any events at the BM/elsewhere to publicise the series? How was it received by the audience?

I attended the launch of the “Relic Trails” at the BM a couple of weeks after the first episode went out in January. The trail involved a few of the objects from the series; the double headed serpent, the Rosetta Stone etc. and children, along with their families, were invited to answer questions and solve puzzles in order to receive clues that would lead them to the correct object in the museum. I think they could also print out a “Guardian of the Museum” certificate if they completed all the tasks. There were two trails; one for younger kids and one slightly more taxing trail for older children. On the same day there were three exclusive showings of the third episode of Relic in the theatre. It was the episode with the Brighton team and didn’t go out until the week after so there was a great feeling of excitement int the room. All the showings were more than two thirds full, the first showing completely full. I was there in character and had to introduce the episode. I had a script written for me but when I went went out in front of the crowd and they were so lively and interested, I quickly threw the script out of the window, save for the important pieces of information I needed to give out, and just improvised. Hands went up and I was asked how I walk through walls (you have to go backwards), who my favourite famous ghost is (Ann Boleyn) and many other questions. Throughout the episodes, the kids (and their parents) were shouting out answers and booing when the Dark Lord appeared. Afterwards, and completely to my surprise, a long line of children queued, actually queued, to get Agatha’s autograph and have their photo taken with her. I was asked questions about the Egyptians (had I met Cleopatra? Yes, of course) and time travel (can I travel without my magic torch?- no)

Depending on the age of the children, some really believed I was a ghost. Slightly older children knew I was an actor and played along with that beautifully, mainly for the sake of their younger siblings. But all were polite, interested and engaged. There didn’t seem to be any belligerent moody teenagers scoffing at the lameness of the whole thing.  The BM genuinely is available to everyone. It is free. All these events were free, too. This leads me on to your next question…

What feedback have you received about the series? Do you know whether ‘Relic’ boosted audience figures at the British Museum, for instance?

Everything I’ve heard has been very positive. I mean that genuinely. As an actor I am a freelancer and don’t work for the BBC beyond the particular days I work for them so I am not particularly biased aside from being very fond of the show, that I will admit. The Radio Times and the TV Times gave Relic good reviews. The Radio Times made the series “Children’s programme of the week”. I don’ t know about audience figures for the show. I do know that Relic beat Horrible Histories in the ratings on BBC ONE for the first few weeks it went out. Horrible Histories is a huge and established franchise so that’s quite a feat in itself. The few things I’ve heard about audience figures at the BM have been favourable but I really don’t know details and I wouldn’t want to skew your data by making some up.

How important do you feel it is to get children interested in museums? And why?

In short, hugely important. I teach students aged 16-25 and a great many of them become fearful and glassy-eyed if you mention Shakespeare or even reading a book. In the overwhelming majority of these cases I’ve found this is because school has been so uninspiring that it has quashed any possible love of these subjects out of them. Shakespeare is very often taught by getting your fellow students to read aloud in dull, monotonous, non-comprehending voices. Well, that’s a sure fire way to turn people away from the Bard, I’m quite sure. And yet it is the way the majority (though by no means all) schools teach it. I think the same can be applied to museums. I personally love them, but I was dragged around some duds as a child and if I hadn’t been persistent I would probably feel the same way as my students feel about Shakespeare. I think these outreach programmes are important to remove the fusty feel of the places and remind people that these buildings house exciting and vibrant collections. I almost think a museum’s purpose should be to inspire its visitors to find out more. When I visit the Natural History Museum, I usually pop into a library or a bookshop the following day and take home some tome concerning Darwinism. If it’s the Science Museum, I’ll probably buy an astronomy or physics book the next day. That, to me, means a museum has done its job well. It’s whetted your appetite and made you eager for more. It’s like a museum should say “you like this? Well, let me tell you, this is only the tip of the iceberg…”

I also think outreach such as Relic is important because, to people unused to visiting museums, they can be seen as very intimidating. This is something one can forget when you’re “on the inside” as it were. Any institution has its own jargon and rules which may not be obvious when you’re setting foot inside a museum for the first time. This is not intended to be patronising. Quite the opposite. I tend to assume everyone goes to museums and art galleries all the time and only go to the theatre when they’re not seeing concerts. It is a very narrow minded middle class attitude. A great many years ago I taught a summer school in Birmingham involving Greek Theatre and the culmination was to attend a theatre performance. It was nothing high brow; just Beauty and the Beast, but I found out that a great number of the students (aged between 11 and 16) had never set foot inside a theatre. Not even to see a panto. The moment when the Beast turns into the Prince at the end held them captivated and was met with gasps. They never realised that theatre could be like this; light, exciting, inspiring and fun. The same is true of museums and galleries. Seeing a Roman vase in the British Museum could be the moment a kid decides to become an archaeologist. A painting in the National Gallery could inspire a child to be an artist or a an expert in restoration. It’s a highly romanticised view but I really believe it. It’s so easy to access information with the internet and TV on demand etc. but nothing, really nothing, beats standing in front of something. Actually being in the same room as an artifact. To think that seeing a picture of the Mummy of Hornejitef on the internet is the same as standing next to it is as foolish as thinking listening to a CD of Michael Jackson is the same as seeing him live. Real life is still better and always will be. The internet is a great resource, of course it is, and every museum would do well to have a lively and active website but no website can ever recreate the tingling excitement of seeing something in the flesh.

I understand you’re hoping for a second series? Can you expand on that at all?

I think everyone who worked on Relic would deeply love for there to be a second series but it requires so many things to happen to make it work, especially with the cutbacks that are now occurring.  Would we do it at the BM again? With another 13 objects? Would the BBC consider this to be giving undue prominence to one institution? Would any other institution be happy with the disruption filming necessarily causes? (There were so many restrictions filming at the museum; no tape on the floors which customary during filming, to set marks. No heels in the Enlightenment Gallery; if you look closely you can see I’m tiptoeing in those scenes as I couldn’t lower my heels onto the delicate surface.) Plus it was a relatively expensive show for CBBC so, all in all, a lot of factors would have to come together to make another series possible so I won’t hold my breath until I get the call.

All I can say is Rob Hyde, the series producer, said his ideal scenario would be to do The National Gallery and the V&A and then The Eden Project as a futuristic spin off. And, yes, he did indeed mention jumping into paintings a la Mary Poppins and also paintings that move a la Harry Potter. I can only cross my fingers, however. There is no guarantee Agatha would host future series, athough I sincerely hope they would want to keep her given the apparent popularity of the character. But that is the precarious and unpredictable life of an actor.
Hope all that’s enough.  Sorry if I’ve wandered off topic on occasions.  Let me know if you need clarification of any of my whitterings.   Relic continues anyhow.  The Relic Trail has been rolled out at about 30 museums across the country including;

Manchester Museum
Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge
Cromwell Museum in Huntindon
Reading Museum
Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology
Guernsey Museums and Galleries at Castle Cornet
National Museum Cardiff
Swansea Museum

I’ll let you know if anything else of use to you comes up


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Posted in: Relic