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Friday, August 3, 2012

Michael Wood tells a Story of England

Now available on DVD is Michael Wood's Story of England. In this six part tale (which was edited down to four when PBS re-aired it), Wood explores a vast stretch of history by looking at a single village. Digging in the dirt, the townspeople come together to help him unearth secrets dating back hundreds, even thousands, of years.

Story of England gets through a lot in six hours. Beginning in Roman times, it then moves through the Viking invasion, the Nordic occupation, a great famine, and the Black Death, which killed two thirds of the village people. From there, the peasants fight the Hundred Years' War, battle the Tudors, and engage in civil war, before the Industrial Revolution moves them into the modern era. Finally, there's the Victorian period and World War I, culminating in the present day.

The credentials behind this series are solid. Wood is a renowned historian who has made about 80 documentaries before doing Story of England, including Great Railway Journeys, Conquistadors, and The Story of India. Having studied History and English at Oriel College, Oxford, Wood went on to be a journalist for ITV and BBC. He returned to history in the late 1970's, and eventually became popular around the world for his take on our past.

Story of England is a unique look at history because it is so localized. Set in Kibworth in Leicestershire, near the middle of England, Wood gets all of the locals to help out on the project. Looking at fragments of things unearthed in the ground, it is soon apparent that Kibworth is very, very old, indeed. The more the townspeople dig, the more they find, and they give face to the story. Learning about one's ancestors can be exciting, and for them, this is a deeply personal and moving experience.

That's sort of the problem with Story of England. It is too concerned with serving Kibworth and not concerned enough with the rest of the world. It has a very narrow focus, only looking at one point on the map. Yes, Kibworth is meant to serve as a representation of the world at large, and events in the town are tied into more famous historical actions. However, for those who have not lived in Kibworth, there isn't a lot of meaning to be found here. It just isn't relevant.

Looking at one place and time can be fascinating, but usually much more so to those who have a vested interest in that place. For outsiders, it can be much more enriching to get a big picture view. This is a personal preference, admittedly, and surely many have found great value in The Story of England. I, however, am not one of them.

My other problem with this series, besides the localization, is the lack of animation or effects. Perhaps this is to blame on other history specials, which usually show graphics and visual representations of the tale they tell. But seeing little bits of broken clay that really don't look like anything isn't all that entertaining. People like Wood get a lot out of these tiny pieces, but the lay person will not. In a book, a story can be told without relying on such fancy accoutrements. On television, a visual medium, a bit more is expected, as it's hard to use one's imagination while watching moving pictures. It's a shame there wasn't some sort of effort made to be it a bit more engrossing.

That being said, there is value in a project like this. Sometimes history concentrates too much on the important people, and little attention is given to the average man, who we are much more likely descended from. In this, Story of England does a decent job of serving the masses, even if it's done in a way that won't appeal to them all that much.

Michael Wood's Story of England has no special features, and is available now on DVD.

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