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Reliving History on TV. `Timeline' series stresses both authenticity and the `feel' of a modern news-feature program

IT'S Sept. 25, 1066. Rumor has it that a Norman named William is poised to invade England. Exactly when or where, no one is certain. Another invasion threat, meanwhile, has just been quashed. The attempt of Harald Hardraade, King of Norway, to conquer England and restore Viking supremacy over northern Europe has failed. The mood is palpably tense as Viking warriors lay down their weapons for their Saxon captors and file somberly into a small stone church. They are paying last respects to Harald, their valiant leader, killed in battle. Chickens and geese waddle past.

Suddenly a man steps onto the scene. In the modulated tones of a modern TV news reporter, he explains: ``Hardraade's son and heir, Olaf Kyrri, left here a short while ago to meet the English king. And sources close to both sides say it's likely they'll sign a peace treaty later today.''

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A TV news flash from the 11th century?

Yes - well, sort of.

I am on the wind-swept Isle of Man just off the northwest coast of Britain. Filming is taking place today for ``Timeline,'' a Public Broadcasting Service series that premi`ered Feb. 22, with the next show airing April 19.

The idea behind ``Timeline'' is to focus on a specific historical date and, in the style of a modern TV news program, look at the major events as they unfold.

Although reminiscent of the ``You Are There'' series produced by CBS in the 1950s and featuring Walter Cronkite, ``Timeline'' will use all of the latest TV reporting techniques. As in the current ``Nightline'' format, the program has a studio anchorman (former ABC newsman Steven Bell) acting as a link between ``live'' reports ``via satellite,'' from ``field reporters'' in various locations in the world. When a story requires greater perspective, ``file footage'' is shown depicting related events from as much as, in some cases, a century before.

The six half-hour ``Timeline'' programs are the result of a deal struck among American, British, Spanish, and Turkish TV production companies. This four-way cooperation makes the project one of the most complex - and costly - that PBS has ever embarked upon. Indeed, by the end of the $2.2 million series, it will have involved 280 actors, 5,000 extras, and 2,000 costumes.

``We've been working the crew 16-17 hours every day, nonstop, for the last two weeks,'' says ``Timeline'' director Leo Eaton, whose goatee and sunglasses poke out from under the fur-trimmed hood of his parka. The temperature today is many notches below freezing. ``You're seeing the kind of weather it's been - and we've got four more weeks to go, including Spain and Turkey. But there's something about a project like this that excites people to make that kind of commitment and to want to make everything look as good as possible, even though they could be earning a lot more money elsewhere.''

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Mr. Eaton, a Briton who has worked for PBS since 1982, is, as well as director, a key figure in the creation of ``Timeline.'' Between takes, he emphasizes that authenticity will be the hallmark of the shows. This is underscored by the presence of Janet Meisel, professor of medieval history at the University of Texas, Austin. Professor Meisel is one of eight academics working extensively on the series. She was asked by Eaton and Gary Witt, a Texan and co-creator of the series, to accompany them at each of the 18 film locations around Britain, Spain, and Turkey. Her job is to help maintain the rigorous standards of accuracy that Eaton and Dr. Witt have set for the project.

The day before is a case in point. A village scene demanded some cows. These were borrowed from a neighboring farm. Ms. Meisel took one look at the herd and protested loudly. A Saxon cow was not the hefty, white-spotted variety of the present day but a small, brown, scraggly thing not much larger than a German shepherd dog. A set painter was immediately dispatched to paint the entire herd.

Beefy, bespotted heifers were a minor hurdle, however, compared with what Eaton and Witt had to overcome to get the series funded. Despite Witt's successful track record as the creative force behind the award-winning PBS ``Newscasts of the Past'' (a much simpler version of ``Timeline''), it took years for the two men to come up with the necessary funding.

``Our foreign partners were gung-ho,'' Witt recalls. ``But ironically, it was in America that we couldn't get any backing. ... It was only when the Meadows Foundation of Dallas stepped in that the series finally became a reality. The foreign companies involved thought this was great: `At last,' they said, `America is starting to show an interest in world history!'''

The choice of periods for ``Timeline'' hinged not just on identifying themes that represented major changes in the course of civilization: ``We wanted to find events that would provide a geographical spread,'' says Eaton. ``In other words, when you're looking at the Vikings, you're looking at what's happening in Norway, Europe, Byzantium, plus Iceland and all the rest. With the Mongols you've got China to Europe and beyond, so that every show will have scenes from Europe, the Middle East, and Far East.''

The first ``Timeline'' program focused on the Crusades. The Vikings and the Mongol Empire apart, future installments will be looking at the Black Death, the conquest of Istanbul, and the fall of Granada to Spain.

Scenes and film locations have also been chosen with meticulous care. The Isle of Man boasts four superb replicas of Viking longships. Exhaustive research has been used to re-create the medieval village. And in place of actors or stunt men, Britain's best Viking reenactment group - historical enthusiasts who become Vikings in their spare time - were brought in to lend greater authenticity to the Viking sequences.

A particularly unspoiled castle has been found on a remote Turkish island for one of the episodes, while streets representing ancient Jerusalem have also been built especially for the series there.

In the evening, many of the crew don't make it to dinner; cold from the day's shooting, they choose instead to spend the time thawing out in hot baths. Next morning looks equally forbidding. This is ``Black Death'' day. Most of the extras, including children - 90 Manx locals whose day began with a 7 a.m. makeup call - will be required to go barefoot, clad only in rags.

Between the countless takes, the extras, purple with cold, scurry to wrap themselves up in blankets. After nearly eight hours of painstaking shooting, the result, I am told, will amount to little more than a few seconds of air time. But Meisel believes the effort is worth it.

``I don't think anyone has ever shown the Vikings as well as we have done them,'' she observes. ``And I don't think anyone has ever depicted the Black Death as well as we are doing today. ... So, as a historian, there's a kind of personal excitement in seeing something that actually resembles a Viking ship sail in, or to wander through a place that really does look rather like a Norman village would have looked. There's a sense of my imagination becoming real.''

Equally authentic, but in a lighter vein, there will also be ``commercial breaks,'' advertising such developments of the period as the advent of chimneys, the church's ``Truce of God'' rules restricting armed combat to Mondays through Wednesdays, and ``the European horticultural event of the season'' - the rose.

The credo of ``Timeline'' is to demonstrate that history is exciting, as well as useful. ``I really love history, but I resent the way it's so badly taught,'' Meisel states. ``So this is a chance to try, one more time, to get those who think they hate the subject to tune in and say, `Gee, this isn't the way it was taught in school.' But even more than that, we want to show them that history is, in fact, one of the things that actually enriches people's lives.''

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