Treasures come in many forms. The Penn Museum in Philadelphia has countless treasures, from Puabi’s crown found in excavations at Ur-of-the-Chaldees in modern-day Iraq, to two of the stone warhorse reliefs from the mausoleum of Tang Taizong near Xian in China, as well as the massive granite Sphinx from Egypt that now welcomes visitors to the Museum’s refurbished main entrance. Of all its treasures, however, one brings an instant smile to academics and public alike. In the Penn Museum archives is a letter dating from 1953 from a young David Attenborough to the then Director, Dr Froelich Rainey.
Sir David, by his own account – in his autobiography Life on Air (2002) – landed his first job at ‘Auntie’, as the BBC is affectionately known, in the Talks Department. His task was to find the objects for Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?, the first archaeological quiz programme on British television, which catapulted archaeology into millions of homes. Sir David was dispatched to many British museums to find the half-dozen or so pieces shown on each show. The aim was to elicit thought-provoking analyses from the high-powered panel of experts. However, with good reason, he also looked across the Atlantic for even better objects to flummox the panellists. Hence, Sir David’s letter to Director Rainey in the Penn Museum archives.
What in the World?
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? was a blatant imitation of a quiz show devised by Froelich Rainey called What in the World? The germ of the idea for What in the World? was planted in 1948. Newly appointed as Director to what was then the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Rainey – a worldly archaeologist with matinee looks – appeared in a television programme that was part of an educational series jointly produced by the Museum and WPTZ-TV (the Philadelphia affiliate of NBC at that time). In this show, Rainey teamed up with Eskimo scholar Helge Larsen, discussing objects principally from Alaska.
In those pioneering days of television, where everything was carefully orchestrated as though it was a staged play, Rainey took a big risk. Before the show aired, he and Larsen decided to abandon the script and to improvise, much to the chagrin of the programme director. The crew, on the other hand, was delighted by what they saw. Forty years later, in his autobiography Reflections of a Digger (1992), written in retirement in Cornwall, Rainey recalled proudly what happened in his first television outing:
As we went along ad-libbing our conversation it occurred to me to pick up one of the objects and as a ‘straight man’ ask Helge what it was. Soon I began to notice the young men in the crew… missing their cues. Afterward I learned from them that it was not only the odd things that Helge said about such strange objects, but the original, extemporaneous, and unexpected conversation… I saw the possibility of taking archaeology and anthropology to the millions via television.
Inspired by this experience, Rainey became more ambitious. He discussed a weekly ‘archaeological quiz show’ with WPTZ, but the station found the idea ‘too high hat [and] too stuffy’. Shortly after, Charley Vanda, a Vice President of WCAU (a Philadelphia affiliate of CBS at the time), ‘agreed to give it a try’. What in the World? first went on the air on 11 April 1950. Rainey claimed that WCAU cancelled the show a few weeks later when he asked to be paid, but returned it to the air – with compensation for him – after receiving considerable mail protesting its cancellation. What in the World? was a local production at first, before it was syndicated nationwide by CBS from 1951 to 1955, being aired on 80 stations. It then reverted to a local broadcast, but was later picked up by the precursor of Public Broadcasting and was distributed widely again.
It was daring of CBS to take on Rainey’s quiz show. In the early 1950s, not everyone owned a television, as table models cost as much as $400 ($3,700 in today’s money). One estimate suggests there were only 30,000 TV sets in Philadelphia in 1948. The potential for a large audience was limited. Television had yet to eclipse radio as the major entertainment medium, with radio generating substantially larger audience numbers. Unsurprisingly, the networks engaged in a competition to acquire prestige programmes that had limited economic viability. What in the World? started as one of these loss leaders.
Rainey’s quiz had begun life as You’re on the Spot, which alluded to the task of experts attempting to identify the objects. The very first programme in 1950 was rehearsed with that title, but sometime before the broadcast, it became What in the World? The effect of the new title symbolically shifted the emphasis from the panel to the objects.
The first stage-set consisted of Rainey and three experts inspecting artefacts while sitting around what was referred to as a treasure chest of Persian design. Shortly after June 1950, and before it went national on CBS, the show’s design was transformed. The quiz’s moderator – usually Rainey, but at times the Associate Director of the Museum, Alfred Kidder II – was now seated at an elevated desk, with the panel standing around a small pedestal where the object rested. A mystical atmosphere was conjured up by staging the object emerging from a cloud of dry ice – induced smoke – accompanied by strains of music – excerpts from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and occasionally Respighi’s Pines of Rome. An offstage voice informed the viewing audience of the identity of the object prior to the panel’s attempt to identify it. As one reviewer commented, this enhanced the entertainment value by evoking a degree of suspense, allowing the viewer to judge how close the panel was getting to the right identification. There was little question that this staging, somewhat sophisticated for its time, improved the programme’s production values.
The panel of experts consisted primarily of anthropologists and archaeologists. Around 100 individuals appeared on the quiz (some many times) over the life of the programme, including notables such as Carleton Coon, Jacques Lipchitz, Margaret Mead, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. The guest who garnered the most excitement was the actor Vincent Price, who appeared on 4 December 1954. It seemed an unexpected choice to have a Hollywood star as a panel member. Rainey introduced him as a ‘rather unusual’ panellist, but was quick to say that the actor was an art collector. The actor, in fact, had a degree in Art History from Yale, and had published a book on the drawings of Delacroix. He was also a collector of Mesoamerican, Native American, and African artefacts.
Success was immediate. In 1951, What in the World? won the George Foster Peabody Broadcasting Award for meritorious service to broadcasting. That year only eight awards were given throughout radio and television. This evidently gave the show a great deal of status as not just entertainment, but also as an educational vehicle bringing anthropology and archaeology into homes across the nation.
One panellist was a ‘natural’, Rainey recalled. Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler had recently returned to Britain after being Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India. He was soon to be knighted by Her Majesty the Queen for services to archaeology, and henceforward generally known as Sir Mortimer Wheeler.
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?
In February 1952, Rainey awarded the Penn Museum’s Lucy Wharton Drexel Medal for Distinguished Archaeological Research to Wheeler, who was already the face of British archaeology, having made films of his excavations from the early 1930s. Erstwhile Director of the London Museum, founder of the Institute of Archaeology in London University, and a Brigadier in the artillery during the Second World War, Wheeler was now in his sixties. He was both an adventurer in world archaeology and larger than life. Rainey invited him to appear on the quiz on 3 February 1952. By Rainey’s own account, he stole the show.
Later, in a letter to Wheeler, Rainey attributed Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? to this chance appearance on What in the World? Wheeler, however, not a self-effacing man, denied it.
In fact, Rainey’s concept was appropriated by Mary Adams, who headed the BBC’s infant television Talks Department. She had instructed one of her new producers, Paul Johnstone, who was to make his name in archaeology and history programming, to come up with a British version of What in the World? Her idea was that each programme should be a specific artefact challenge posed by a particular British museum, as this would do a great service to promoting those museums to the public.
Assisted by a new BBC recruit, David Attenborough, this version first aired in October 1952. Initially, it was hosted by Lionel Hale, a theatre critic who had made his name on radio in the panel show Transatlantic Quiz. Almost immediately, Hale stood down as moderator after being challenged about the age of one of the objects by Thomas Bodkin, an art historian and seasoned radio broadcaster. Thereafter, for the next seven years, the chairman was a former panellist, Cambridge University prehistorian Glyn Daniel, famously a bon vivant.
Paul Johnstone had identified Glyn Daniel and Mortimer Wheeler as likely panellists in 1952. After their television auditions, neither thought that anything would come of it. Daniel also admitted he was uncertain of working with Wheeler, whom he called ‘an egoist and satyromaniac’ in his autobiography. Wheeler, despite his fame as an archaeologist, was at a low ebb financially and needed the work. Neither his career nor his third marriage were going well. More to the point, as Daniel later acknowledged, Wheeler was deeply unpopular with the British archaeological establishment. Yet soon he was to become a household name, thanks to Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? A bemused David Attenborough recalled Wheeler’s performances on the quiz show as follows: ‘Whatever archaeological object we chose, it seemed to turn out that Sir Mortimer had himself personally dug it up. He played outrageously to the gallery, twirling his moustaches, pretending initially to be baffled, then discovering a clue and finally bringing his identification to a triumphant conclusion.’
As Rainey had foreseen, Wheeler was a natural. Wheeler’s biographer Jacquetta Hawkes observed: ‘His enthusiasm and vitality, his popular humour and flashes of wit all radiated from the screen,’ adding, ‘one lady, having heard that Sir Mortimer liked sherry, always stood a glass of it on her television set when he was present in the box below.’ To no one’s surprise, Wheeler was voted BBC Personality of the Year in 1953. The following year, the award went to Daniel.
David Attenborough has always been a creative intellect. His major contribution to the panel game was the idea of trying out the same objects on the What in the World? panel then on the Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? panel, and vice versa. This was a bold venture given the two studio-based programmes were aired live, and transatlantic flying was in its infancy. Rainey’s admiration for Wheeler doubtless helped Attenborough to pull this off. As Rainey later wrote, ‘this became a game in which each panel of experts tried to outdo the other…’. Once aired live on a Sunday night in Philadelphia, the six or seven key objects were flown express by TWA to London, where they were put before the London panellists. In the stilted early years of television, this innovation doubtless added an edge to the proceedings for audiences in both countries.
Most difficult objects
It was to be a special exchange for the programme aired on 29 October 1953 that prompted Sir David’s letter, now housed in the Penn Museum archives, and Rainey’s swift reply.
Sir David wrote to Rainey from his BBC office in Alexandra Palace on 3 November 1953 as follows:
Dear Dr Rainey,
Your objects provided us with material for a very excellent programme last Thursday, and the Queen and Prince Philip were very interested to have a look at them before the programme was televised. The members of our panel agreed, with mixed feelings, that they were among the most difficult objects that we have so far seen in the programme. They have now been repacked and despatched to you by TWA, and I believe our Shipping Department has written to you separately giving you full details.
I hope that the two sets of objects reached you safely and that you were able to compile a satisfactory programme from these. I look forward very much to seeing the kinescope of your programme, and I will arrange with Mr Forrest to send the file of ours.
I would like to thank you once again for arranging this exchange with us, and may I also ask that you will let us know if you ever come to this country in the hope that we may be able to persuade you to appear personally in our programme?
Eight days later, on 11 November 1953, Rainey replied:
Dear Mr Attenborough,
I was very amused to find you saying in your letter of November 3rd that your Panel found our objects about the most difficult they have had so far. You see, our panel only recognized two out of five of your objects which we gave them in a half hour. I am afraid they made a rather bad showing and I am sure they will be relieved to find out the BBC Panel also had difficulties. In any case, it made an excellent show and I am sure our exchange was well worthwhile. We are all very anxious to see your kinescope.
When Rainey saw the kinescope (recording tapes) of the BBC show that the new monarch and her consort had seen live in the studio, he later recalled, it ‘was something of a fiasco’. The BBC panel – including Wheeler – had failed to identify any of the What in the World? objects. These had included six of the following: a Somalian bridal necklace, a tea caddy from Myanmar, a South African snuff container, a Maltese cage for singing cicadas, a Palestinian seal for Easter bread, a pottery toy from India, a Chinese knife-grinder’s tool, a pottery whistle from Mallorca, and a Maori tattooing stone. For a ‘try-out’ beforehand, the list included a caltrop from India to stop charging elephants, a medieval jug with a bearded man, and a ‘dock forgery’ made in London’s East End in the 19th century and bearing the date of 1000 in Arabic.
Reading Sir David’s letter today and Rainey’s immediate reaction courteously obfuscating what happened, you cannot help thinking of the Queen and Prince Philip, on leaving the BBC, cheerily speculating about the transatlantic fracas likely to erupt between eminent archaeologists.
See it yourself What in the World? episodes can be found under ‘University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Films’ on the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/UPMAA_films?query=%22what+in+the+world%22 Glyn Daniel appears in the episode that aired on 12 March 1955: https://archive.org/details/upenn-f16-4005_what_in_the_world_6
ALL IMAGES: The Penn Museum (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) unless otherwise stated.