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on 27 September 2009
The British Isle's and her people have a long history, reaching back far beyond the invasions of Norman, Viking, Saxon, and Roman to the legendary times of Brutus and even Albion; but are you aware that this history is written in your face? In this 155min 3 part series, archaeologist Neil Oliver uses cutting edge forensic, genetic, linguistic and geographic evidence to illustrate just how true this is; and the results are amazing.

This series is centred around the results of a landmark reseach project, carried out by geneticist Sir Walter Bodmer and his team at Oxford University; who have created the most detailed DNA map of Britain ever, which tells us, I quote:- "exactly who our ancestors were, where they came from and what they looked like.". This indisputable genetic evidence is then digitally analysed to produce mathmatically typical faces of the various regional populations. Backing this up is a mass of linguistic and geographic information, all of which is then used to illustrate how the Celts, Saxons etc... moved across the British Isles from even the most remote times right up to our own.

Just one interesting fact revealed in this programme is that people with the MC1R gene, (known as the ginger gene) inherit this from the very first nomad hunters to have settled these islands at the ending of the Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago. By contrast, the people of the eastern regions, East Anglia, Tyneside etc... are still even today; more closely related to the people of Denmark and Germany, than to their Celtic fellow countrymen in the West. All in all, this is a highly interesting, highly relevant series, which graphically illustrates how the actions of now long dead generations still affect us to this day; and how in due course, our own actions will affect those who come after us, literally for ever. Face of Britain [DVD]
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on 22 April 2011
What an excellent and informative series. Once again Neil Oliver was captivating. This program allows you to question your past and where you come from. I loved the mix of anthropology, history and archaeology, combining the evidence of language and ethnoicity. It gripped me from episode 1 and just wish the programmes was longer. The fact that DNA is used in evaluating where you originated from was an inspiration for a program.
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I would argue that this fascinating but also flawed three-part TV series is of vital importance to anyone with an interest in Britain and its long history. In it, presenter Neil Oliver follows the progress and reports the results of an Oxford University study into the genetic roots of the British, undertaken by Professor Sir Walter Bodmer.

Oliver talks of DNA studies being "another kind of archaeology", but it is much more than that. It can be argued that these studies are only now in their infancy, and as data builds up and new techniques are elaborated, the processes involved can lead to almost definitive answers to some of the many questions of history and prehistory. I am no expert, but recent studies seem to imply that some of the earliest arrivals to Britain came not from the European heartland but from the Basque region. So, in a sense, this 2007 TV series is already out-of-date in some respects, but the potential it highlights for future revelations and surprises, if only for confirming what has already been surmised, is plain to see.

I said at the beginning of this review that the TV series is partially flawed. This is because Oliver is quite glib and superficial in some of the terms he employs. I know there is a certain requirement to `dumb down' to reach a popular audience, but there is no real requirement for him to assert that the hunter-gatherers arrived in Britain over the land-bridge from "southern Europe" 10,000 years ago. Oliver never elaborates on this supposed genetic link to this large amorphous area of the continent. He also goes on to assume that these are the same as the Celts; in other words there were no other major arrivals on Britain's shores until the Romans. This is dangerous territory. There is also too much certainty in other areas, such as that `Ictis' is Saint Michael's Mount in Cornwall and not one of the other contenders for this name along the southwest coast.

The `dumbing- down' aspect also applies to the science itself, which is not fully or even adequately explained, so it is difficult for the viewer to judge how much he can rely on the results presented. These results are presented in percentage terms of `more likely than', but with little further explanation of the statistical margins of error. References by Oliver to "savage, flame-haired Celts" and "runty Picts" are unhelpful.

One area where the series is really helpful is its exploration of language and place-names in different parts of Britain. However, I am not sure I can say the same about the attempt to reconstruct regional facial characteristics of Britain's people. If you freeze-frame a quick one-second shot you will see how the Cornish and Devon faces are quite dissimilar and yet both are demonstrated in the series as being genetically the same. As for the attempt to reconstruct faces in 3D from skeletal remains, my partner who was sat on the sofa next to me wondered whether the result would be the same if the same bones were given to three different facial reconstruction experts.

That old chestnut about how many Angles and Saxons came over from Denmark, Germany and Holland is explored with interesting results, especially with regard to the difficulties of distinguishing Anglo-Saxons from Danish Vikings - and perforce from the Normans. But a bit of further background about what this implies in terms of modern Norwegians, Danes, and Normans (and Friesians and the Dutch) would have been nice. Nevertheless, it is interesting that even in Sussex and Kent there is still a 30% Celtic presence, and that the further you travel away from the east coast, the Celtic presence increases: Oxfordshire, for example, is supposedly 51% Celtic and 49% Anglo-Saxon.

I do not want to be too negative about this series, which proved more than fascinating to this layman with an interest in his own origins and that of his compatriots. The fact that the series raised more questions than answers is a double-edged sword, but it has led me to purchasing the book to the series and to make enquiries about the results of other studies. All that we now need is for Oliver to revisit Professor Bodmer's results and those of other studies to see if we can pinpoint now some definitive markers for future study, but without the populist extras.

Talking of which, alas, the DVD comes with no extras of its own.
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on 15 February 2011
The programme sets out to find the descendants of the Celts, the Anglo-Saxons, the Normans and the Vikings: how numerous they are in different regions of modern Britain, and what they look like. This could have been fascinating, but unfortunately at least half the run time was taken up with shots of people milling about in shopping centres, having blood taken from their arms (over and over again) and worst of all close-ups of test-tubes of blood filling the screen, which recurred constantly all through the programme as a kind of punctuation mark or time-filler. I hope someone makes a better film on this subject in the future. I give it two stars because I did learn a few things.
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on 12 February 2013
Lot of repeating information. It could have been compressed in half the time it took now.But even then, highly interesting.
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on 3 March 2016
Very poor production quality. There is no disk menu. It's VHS quality picture. And the audio is randomly loud and quiet. I can't believe this was produced professionally or that there was any sort of quality check.
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on 1 January 2014
It was an interesting project, creative presentation of scientific information. The Face of Britain documents a fascinating scientific project. Neil Oliver creatively presents the scientific information in an easily understood manner. Somewhat more technical information would have been appropriate.
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on 16 July 2015
I'd personally listen to ANYTHING with Neil Oliver's accent over the top, but this was actually quite interesting, too.
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on 22 January 2016
missed it in tv very good if a bit speculative as always with the BBC
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on 3 August 2011
I was expecting something more like a documentary. This one turned out to be a tv show with a 15 min content spread to 3 series. Same visualizations are repeated over and over, same script read etc. They obviously targeted audiences who would watch one episode a week. When watched back to back, you need to fast forward a lot of repetitions. Also not for the ones who can't stand the sight of blood. I would count myself immune, but watching bubbling bloodsamples for 40 mins for screen fillers did not help my appetite either.

I thought I purchased some documentary, but watched a proper tv show with people in the focus who think they are proud celts/anglo-saxons/vikings/normans, but a moment of truth later, they discover they are just slightly so, some are disappointed some are indifferent...

If you have no further questions when someone says you are five times more likely to be of ethnicity a than ethnicity b, interested in the distribution of this kind of result across England, and enjoy watching people's reactions, buy this.
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