Sunday, April 23, 2017

A review of Michael Wood's “Story of England”

Michael Wood, the series presenter

Even a cursory look at the British population will show that the dominant part of the United Kingdom is England, since more than 80% of its people reside in England. (That's according to the country's last census in 2011.) The rest of them are often lumped together into the term "Celtic peoples"; which come from the Celtic regions of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Each of these peoples has a long history of conflict with England, and the fact that they almost always speak English today (not to mention their smaller numbers, in comparison with the English) all testify to the degree that they were conquered by England. This is, of course, a major factor in British society today, and a painful situation for many a Celt.

It may have been England's predominance over internal British affairs that caused a prior series from the year 2000 - namely, Simon Schama's "A History of Britain" - to focus mainly on England in its political history, rather than to try to cover everything else in the British Isles. A number of Celts felt somewhat neglected by the larger Simon Schama history, and so the BBC made a few other series that focused more on Celtic history - such as Fergal Keane's "The Story of Ireland," Huw Edwards' "The Story of Wales," and Neil Oliver's "A History of Scotland". While these series may have served to pacify some of the Celtic audiences for the BBC, it is ironic that the BBC eventually decided to go back to English history (at least temporarily), and make another series about England - which is, of course, Michael Wood's "Story of England," the topic of this post.

King Henry VIII, the only person to be mentioned by name in an episode title

But there was a bit of a problem in making this series, which was that the Simon Schama history had already covered the political history in some depth, and thus put the new project at risk of being somewhat redundant. Thus, they decided not to attempt another political history of England, and instead made a people's history - or a history of "ordinary people" within the larger "Story of England." To simplify their narrative somewhat, they decided to focus on one English village, which was the Leicestershire town of Kibworth - telling several centuries of English history through the eyes of this one small village, rather than attempting to cover everything in the six hours of the program.

Location of the county of Leicestershire on the map of England

The focus on one village is both a strength and a weakness for this series; which can have both advantages and disadvantages, depending on which topic you're talking about (and there are many within this series). In a way, this series can (at times) be reminiscent of Ken Burns' "The War" - a series which covered World War II from the perspective of four American towns, and which also both benefited and suffered from the microscopic focus of its story. There is one crucial difference, though, which is that Michael Wood's "Story of England" doesn't focus on one particular time period (as Ken Burns' "The War" does), but covers two thousand years of history - making this tale something of an epic as much as a small story. The particular families mentioned here see generations rise and fall in the history of this village.

Michael Wood doing research for this series

One of the disadvantages of the focus of this series is that the written records are harder to come by with such a small area. You'd have a wider selection from the whole of England, for example, but don't have much to go by for the particular town of Kibworth in a number of periods - particularly the early periods. The series chose to pursue some new archaeological evidence instead, which gives their series a number of actual artifacts from the period as visuals - and not just artifacts from anywhere in England, but from the local area of interest. This technique allows them to bring these periods to life in greater detail, at those times when written records are not available - which is a lot of the time, given that the records available start somewhat later in Kibworth's history. (Sometimes, the series focuses more on discovering "new facts" in archaeology than on the story of the towns themselves; but they nonetheless help to uncover some details that help to flesh out the story better.)

Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester - one of the players in this local story

The other major weakness that I see is that it's somewhat short for comfort (only 6 hours long), which makes it somewhat hard for it to measure up well to the Simon Schama history (which was a full 15 hours long). The Simon Schama history was a better series in (at least) some respects, albeit one more focused on kings and battles - which are the "traditional" aspects of history in virtually every country. Indeed, I actually felt fortunate (in a way) that I had seen the Simon Schama history first, since it gave some political background that Michael Wood has to assume when discussing some of the periods here (particularly the wartime periods, like the civil war). Mr. Wood probably assumed that these things would just be common knowledge for a person born in the British Isles (and probably accurately), but which are not taught as often to my fellow Americans in schools. As an Anglo-American, though, I have a number of ancestors from England - and even from a number of other parts of the British Isles; such as Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. (My ancestry is not found exclusively in any one place - not even in Britain generally, since I have ancestors elsewhere as well.) My English language and blood still combine together, though, to make this series rather fascinating for me, and for a number of others around the globe. (This is something that is acknowledged in this series, when discussing the village's exile of a local citizen to Australia - which is another place, besides my home nation of America, where the British Empire left its mark.)

Michael Wood, the series presenter

In the last episode of this series, Michael Wood notes that as he reaches World War II, his "Story of England" passes into living memory; and he interviews a few of the local eyewitnesses to the Second World War - including survivors of the German air raids that wrought death and destruction on English cities. The Celtic regions, by contrast, were fortunate to be somewhat further removed from the German bombers than were the English cities. Thus, they were spared a lot of the devastation and horror of the air raids (as will be evident to anyone who looks at a map of the area, and sees the distances involved for these areas respectively). Thus, it is the people of England (and particularly Southern England) who suffered the brunt of these air attacks on the British Isles; and the accounts of the local survivors in this series are particularly compelling, adding much to the series' discussion of these relatively modern (and even recent) events.

Michael Wood with Kibworth townspeople

This series has the intimate feel of a small village from the interviews with the locals (for World War II and other periods), and they are not just limited to the later periods with living eyewitnesses. For earlier periods, they interview the locals equally often in the discussions of their ancestors; and sometimes invite them to read some period quotations from one of their forbears (or others in the story, inside and outside Kibworth). The series has definite merit in its ability to get people excited about the histories of their own families and countries, when there was virtually no interest amongst many villagers before their arrival. The filmmakers even examine the villagers' DNA in this series, in a search for information about whom their ancestors are - whether they are Anglo-Saxons, or various kinds of Celts, or even invading peoples like the Vikings (all of who, incidentally, are represented in the gene pool). The excitement on one villager's face as he discovers his "Viking heritage" was something of a treat to watch; and I should note here that the scientific knowledge to be gained seems to be of immense importance to both Britons and Americans (not to mention many others).

So Michael Wood's "Story of England" thus seems to be something of a mixed bag, with both advantages and disadvantages from its chosen method of focusing on one small town, and telling the story of "ordinary people" instead of the so-called "great men" of history. If you choose to watch this series, you will likely find (as I have) that some parts of it are quite engrossing, while other parts of it are somewhat less so (although they're all pretty interesting, I have to admit). The series would seem to be worth watching for the priceless gems that it offers, though, and for the rare combination of the small story and the epic tale.

DVD at Amazon

If you liked this series, you might also like:

Simon Schama's "A History of Britain"

Andrew Marr's "Modern Britain"

Melvyn Bragg's "The Adventure of English"

Michael Wood's "The Story of India"

Michael Wood's "Conquistadors"

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