Pick of the month
Britain’s Biggest Dig
BBC Two from Tuesday 15 September, 9pm
Preparing the ground for the construction of the HS2 high-speed railway linking London with Birmingham and beyond has inevitably meant digging down into history. And, since cataloguing archaeological remains is part and parcel of major construction projects, that means teams of experts have been excavating at sites along the route.
The dizzying amount of work involved is made clear in this new three-part archaeology series following HS2-linked excavations when its presenters, historian Dr Yasmin Khan and anthropologist Prof Alice Roberts, visit the former site of St James’ Gardens in Euston. For a little over 60 years from Christmas Eve 1789, this was a burial ground where tens of thousands of Londoners were laid to rest. In the words of Roberts, it provides “an incredible window into London’s past”.
Earmarked for HS2’s London terminus, the vast scale of the site being excavated is conveyed by scenes where the camera pans out to reveal dozens of archaeologists working to reveal different graves. The site is covered in a giant canopy to protect it from the weather, giving the eerie impression of a temporary campsite-cum-warehouse for the dead and those tending them.
The remains here need to be respectfully exhumed and reburied. And remarkably, because so many of these Georgian-era burials are unusually well preserved – with, for example, nameplates on coffins surviving – it’s possible to identify individuals at a site where several historically significant figures were laid to rest.
There’s also evidence of how people would take precautions to thwart the ‘resurrection men’ who pilfered cadavers from graves, in an era when there was a shortage of bodies for use in medical training. ‘Coffin collars’, we learn, were iron hoops that went over the neck to stop bodies being pulled from the ground.
As well as spending time in the centre of the capital, the series also catalogues excavations in Birmingham. Here, the burial ground at Park Street – once within the territory of the infamous gang the Peaky Blinders – offers insights into the lives of Brummies during the Industrial Revolution.
The Singapore Grip
ITV from Sunday 13 September, 9pm
Winston Churchill called the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”. Whatever the truth, it was certainly an ignominious moment as a vital stronghold was lost in part because of sheer incompetence.
It’s an era revisited in a new six-part drama from ITV. Based on JG Farrell’s satirical novel and scripted by the Oscar-winning Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), it shows life in Singapore largely from the perspective of the Blacketts, headed by rubber merchant Walter (David Morrissey), who initially seems blithely unaware of the gathering danger to his privileged way of life. A strong cast also includes Charles Dance as Blackett’s urbane business partner, Mr Webb, and Jane Horrocks as Walter’s wife, Sylvia.
Battle Of Britain 80: Allies at War
Sky History, Monday 14 September, 9pm
On the eve of Battle of Britain Day, when in 1940 the Royal Air Force fought off two huge attacks against London by the Luftwaffe, Sky History offers a trio of films marking the 80th anniversary of one of the key campaigns of the Second World War, and celebrating “the few” and those who kept them flying.
The first documentary focuses on June and July 1940, when Britain’s military somehow found the strength to regroup after the disastrous retreat from France. The programme also remembers the Polish and Czech pilots who escaped POW camps and took
to the air to protect our skies.
Then Battle of Britain: the Race for Radar (10pm) tells the inside story of how Britain developed its radar network, including the tale of how the Germans sent a Zeppelin to probe the secrets of a chain of coastal towers that had appeared around Britain.
Finally, The Battle of Britain (11pm) kicks off a three-part series that uses rarely seen footage to help tell the story of a momentous summer.
Not What You Thought You Knew with Dr Fern Riddell
Podcast available on Apple Podcasts, Acast and Spotify from Tuesday 15 September
Sponsored by Ancestry, the new eight-part podcast series focuses on fascinating and little-known stories and characters from history.
Each chapter unearths largely unknown personalities and details from history; from female Viking warriors to the Soviet Night Witches; the fearless Russian female fighter-bomber pilots who struck terror into the hearts of German troops on the Eastern Front during the Second World War.
Episodes four to seven of the podcast focus on Black History Month in October, and feature the remarkable story of Britain’s first black footballers, as well as Allen Noel Mins, whose bravery in the Royal Army Medical Corps earned him the Military Cross and DSO, and Olaudah Equiano who, despite being bought and sold as a slave several times throughout his life, helped pave the way for abolitionism in Britain.
The Secret History of Writing
BBC Four, from Monday 21 September, 9pm
This new three-part series from the BBC looks at the history of writing from the hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt to our modern-day emojis.
A House Through Time
There’s still time to catch up with series 3 of the popular house history programme, in which historian David Olusoga traces the residents of a historic house in Bristol.
Burma’s Secret Jungle War
BBC iPlayer until 11 September
In this two-part documentary, repeated from 2016, mountaineer Joe Simpson travels to Myanmar to retrace the Second World War journey of his father Ian, who fought in the Special Forces.
From the Mayflower to the Moon (and back again)
BBC Radio 4
Ten journeys that built the United States between the landing of the Mayflower in 1620 and the men who went to the Moon.
You’re Dead to Me
BBC Radio 4
Greg Jenner is joined by chocolate historian Alex Hutchinson and TV legend Richard Osman to explore the culinary and cultural history of chocolate.