It’s hard to believe that the third season of Forbidden History has already come and gone. However, with just six episodes in the season, time really does fly by. It’s not the most interesting show, a sort of knockoff-cum-homage to America Unearthed and Ancient Aliens staffed entirely by junior varsity wannabees, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had a fringe history TV series to review, and I need to keep my reviewing muscles worked out for the upcoming return of Ancient Aliens next month.
In this final installment, our roving band of ignoramuses stumble into a search for King Arthur, that most British of British historical topics. Given that cable nonfiction pseudo-historical documentaries are, at their core, lazy, it’s no wonder that this episode bears a striking resemblance to Josh Gates’s visit to some of the same sites on Expedition Unknown back in October, and amounts, in essence, to an hour-long commercial for Graham Phillips’s new book on King Arthur, which provides most of the research (or what passes for it) for the episode.
When I call the regular cast of Forbidden History ignoramuses, I am not simply exaggerating for effect. From host Jamie Theakston, former presenter of Top of the Pops, to Ross Andrews, a “historian” once seen on Bargain Hunt who has published no books of history, to Templar conspiracy theorists Clive Prince and Lynn Picknett, to Heretic magazine editor Andrew Gough, to radio host Heather Osborn, the personalities on this show are singularly unqualified to offer anything by way of facts. In “In Search of the Real King Arthur” (S03E06) nothing changes or challenges this view, and the program continues its suspicious practice of feeding each talking head with the same talking points, which each one then repeats in virtually the same words. It’s clear that the “facts” about King Arthur they spout came from the show’s producers, since the similarity of phrasing—time and time again—is too close to be coincidence.
We start with Theakston visiting Glastonbury Abbey, where in 1191 monks uncovered enormous fossil bones (likely planted by them) that they declared the bones of Arthur and Guinevere: “You must know that Arthur’s bones, which were found in that place (Glastonbury), were so big that in them the words of the poet seemed to find fulfillment: ‘The farmer … will … marvel at gigantic bones in the upturned graves’ (Virgil, Georgics 1.497)” (Giraldus, Liber de Principis instructione, Distinctio I, folio 107b, 1193 CE, my trans.). As with all TV documentaries, which care nothing for the primary sources, they omit the giants, while correctly noting (over and over again, with multiple talking heads) that the monks fabricated the entire thing as part of an effort to make money off of the tourist trade. But since our show is as fringe as fringe can be, New Age tour guide Tor Webster tells us that the bodies, located near the convergence of a “hundred ley lines,” might actually be those of Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene, the latter of whom he believes was the Holy Grail! Since when were they giants? Since speculators stopped reading the sources they base their speculation upon.
Following this, we visit with Graham Phillips, who is here to promote his new book, itself a rewrite of a twenty-year old book of his, which in turn copied many of its claims from a 1960s book. I reviewed Phillips’s new book in February (part one here and part two here).
Here Phillips recounts many of the claims from his two books, beginning with Welsh chronicles from the 800s that recorded references to Arthur and the Battle of Baden, specifically the History of the British Kings (Historia Brittonum). I had to laugh when Theakston declared that Phillips uncovered the text, written around 830 CE (not the 700s as the show says), with great and enormous difficulty “through his research” while on screen we see a public domain e-text of the book, which you can read here and which does indeed mention Arthur. Phillips then tells Theakston that he identifies the hero called “the Bear” in Gildas’s De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae as Arthur, but he again revises the dates, attributing Gildas to “around four-four-five A.D.” when Gildas wasn’t born until after 500. (A few scholars think the book was written by an earlier figure around 490.) He reads from the Latin text in anachronistic Shakespearean English, which made me wonder why he would be sight-translating into early modern English. I checked, and he’s actually reading from Michael Winterbottom’s translation but mixing in J. A. Giles’s pronouns from his earlier (and public domain) Victorian King James-style translation. To what end? The “Bear” here isn’t our Arthur but explicitly, per Gildas’s own words in section 32 of Giles’s translation, Cuneglasse. His idea is that “the Bear” in Welsh or Brythonic would have the name Art or Arth (cognate to Arktos in Greek), son of a king named Owain Ddantgwyn (Owen White-Tooth), whom he calls the historical Arthur and the first Bear. He shows Theakston the places he claims are the site of Arthur’s last battle and Arthur’s tomb.
In my reviews, I explained why Phillips’s case rests on a foundation of assumptions and hot air. As I said at the time, Phillips’s claims are as plausible as any other, but they rely on too much faith placed in medieval chronicles that are unlikely to be factually accurate. For a more sustained criticism, see pages 124 and 125 of Rodney Castleden’s King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend (2003). I am on record as not being a huge fan of Castleden, whose conclusions often overshoot the evidence (his book on the Mycenaeans has a whole sections with little or no archaeological support), so it’s going some for me to say he’s quite right here!
The talking heads show up after Graham has said his piece, and they all say exactly the same thing (except for Lynn Picknett, who alone seems to have a mind of her own in this episode). It’s kind of creepy that these Stepford pundits march in lockstep, but it’s downright depressing that the producers think the Greek chorus is necessary at all.
Clive Prince then delivers a harangue against “professional academics.” He says that they “don’t take kindly” to “amateurs” like Phillips and Adrian Gilbert “muscling in and proving them wrong.” He claims that this is not a conspiracy per se but rather a professional firewall that prevents archaeological work from occurring merely on the say-so of fringe theorists and amateurs. Prince’s writing partner, Picknett, agrees and says that only passionate amateurs get anything done because, she implies, professionals are too conservative.
Andrew Gough repeats the entire episode point for point for no reason but to celebrate Phillips, and he fails to disclose that he has a business relationship with Phillips, whose work he publishes in Heretic magazine. His puffery of Phillips and Phillips’s claims directly benefits him.
In wrapping up the hour in his usual milquetoast way, Theakston says that he thinks that Phillips “makes a pretty compelling case” and blames authorities for not giving Phillips permission to dig up the tomb of Owain to prove it. He does not address the question of why no mainstream scholars have agreed with Phillips’s claims since he first made them in the early 1990s, though I guess that’s because in the view of this show “professional academics” have too much lose from finding the “truth.”
4/10/2016 11:47:06 am
Can these people be charged with false advertising? I mean, searching for a real King Arthur is forbidden? In what universe?
4/10/2016 03:20:24 pm
The most depressing thing about the article is the news that "Ancient Aliens" is returning. One has to ask why. Haven't they beaten every possible angle to the ancient alien theory to death. The last few seasons of the show have been nothing but repeats of previous episodes, with the same cast of talking heads saying the same things they have been saying for, what seems to be the last ten years.
4/10/2016 03:48:28 pm
They gotta have their fix.
4/10/2016 07:02:23 pm
They keep showing commentary by Phil Coppens who died in 2012. Every episode for the last 3 years have been cut-and-paste from previous episodes. To their credit, the profits must be phenomenal.
4/10/2016 09:25:28 pm
Add my disgust to this "news" also. How long can they milk this ancient aliens "theorist" mess? The last two seasons (al least) were, in my opinion, just repeatings of previous seasons. Nothing new, but as long as the profits keep rolling in the "history" channel will give them air time. Even the wife, who really liked the show the first few seasons finally admitted the last two seasons were totally nothing new at all.
4/10/2016 06:45:22 pm
re. "a professional firewall that prevents archaeological work from occurring . . . professionals are too conservative."
4/10/2016 07:05:06 pm
Weren't most published 19th century archaeologists (now considered mainstream) amateurs/treasure hunters?
4/10/2016 07:47:47 pm
It wasn't an established science then.
4/10/2016 08:21:02 pm
Yes, Ken, but as Ghoul says, it wasn't science in the way we think of it; however at least some of the 19thC archeologists were reasonably careful and methodical and they were establishing the "science." Still, much of it was treasure hunting, pure & simple. I shudder to think of the knowledge that has been lost forever by inexpert excavation, documentation, and preservation. Of course that may well be said of current methods in a couple hundred years.
4/10/2016 08:32:38 pm
I shudder more at the knowledge that has been tainted forever by the interpretations, misrepresentations and outright lies made by unqualified fringe proponents. It seems they prefer the methods and motivations behind archaeology in its infancy. Especially the desire for fame and fortune.
4/10/2016 10:02:34 pm
Goodness knows how many "archaeological artifacts" currently in museums are really fakes perpetrated by artists such as Michelangelo - there was no such thing as controlled scientific archaeology to begin with and it was a free-for-all for such unscrupulous opportunists.
4/10/2016 10:02:12 pm
Well, obviously they would need apply dynamite and jackhammers for excavation in order to not only stay within budget, but also finish in time for the upcoming episode. Archeological excavation done proper takes way too long!
4/10/2016 09:31:05 pm
This crew is following the same programming theme and script as that miracle of reality programming "The Hoax of Oak Island"
4/11/2016 12:26:29 pm
The myths and legends very well may be based on a factual King Arthur, however it's doubtful any of these guys will make any meaningful discoveries. I wish them luck, but I just don't see them doing anything other than talking on a television show and lamenting the vast academic conspiracy holding them back.
9/13/2016 12:22:30 pm
For someone who's trying to research King Arthur's history as well as key points as accepted in his story, where would you suggest that person start? I already have Sir Thomas Malory's book, but I'd like to go beyond simple storytelling.
james the younger
2/9/2017 08:42:27 pm
The translation of arthur to bear and pendragon to its Celtic roots is fascinating.
8/16/2017 02:35:04 pm
I am king arthur
12/18/2017 03:13:44 pm
I agree - those shows are superficial, purely entertainment, and aimed at the uninformed viewer. However, it seems as if Colavito has some personal axe to grind with Phillips and is unreasonably and overly critical of his work. Is there a personal or professional jealousy at play?
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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