Thursday, 23 September 2010

Michael Wood's Story of England or Time Team BBC style

In BBC4's Michael Wood's Story of England, Kibworth plays host to Michael Wood and his Time Team wannabes for several episodes in order to trace the history of all of England through this one prototypical village. One suspects there is more to the choice than mere locale and  it's  near complete set of records going back to the early 1300's. The fact that a famous hoard of pre-Roman coins was found nearby and that it's near the Roman administrative centre of Leicestershire, must have factored heavily.

Before I say anything else, I have to admit to thinking that Tony Robinson was going to show up at any moment and accuse Michael Wood of nicking his gig. In fact the entire programme will likely be a continuous invitation to compare the two programmes. So lets get it out of the way now. Michael Wood is no Tony Robinson, while Baldrick has been doing this a few years over at C4 with sufficiently respectable results, Michael Wood has been wandering the major digs of the world going back to the first time I remember him doing the Helen of Troy story. Both are memorable for different reasons, all of them good. Robinson draws you in with his folksy style and complete lack of fear of embarrassment, while Professor Wood is the prototypical Don with his soft spoken approach that borders on the seductive, I should know, my wife does this sigh thing when he comes on. I'd love to see a Dan snow Michael Wood collaboration one day, that would truly set the ladies hearts fluttering. While Tony Robinson entertains while he informs, Proff. Wood comes off as less excited and more of an academic presenting you with incredibly important information in the nicest way possible, which suits me fine as he's not exactly covering new ground so to speak.

The archaeology is pretty basic, so what separates the two programmes? Not much really, except that in this case the entire town of Kibworth has been asked to dig test trenches in their gardens and front lawns. Clearly there was going to be more than the standard 3 days before the construction crews moved in or the budget ran out. Another curious thing I noted is the bad weather that "dogs" Tony Robinson, seems to have stayed away so far for the Kibworth dig. Michael Wood has not had to get his wellies muddy or have to hide from the elements in a noisy cold damp tent yet. It's early days I hear Tony screaming from somewhere under a tarpaulin. I do have to say for the record that I missed the madder than a bag of wet cats archaeologists from Time Time, Michael's lot seem so well behaved and clean.
Has it been compelling? Have I learned anything new? Yes and Yes. while much that was said or shown through voice overed info clips was pretty basic to veteran history enthusiasts, a few bits were new and well presented. We learn of the origin of the name English from the Anglo Saxon's description of them by the Pope. The new chosen people as the Proff told us. Not Angles but Angels. The use of superimposed graphics  very nearly like Time Team, is supplemented by a visit to several locations, one that recreates the life of a typical Anglo Saxon village. It's archaeology porn at it's finest, complete with experts telling us that otherwise unremarkable bits of pottery aren't in fact rocks or dirt, but proof of occupation by one invader or another.

What truly makes this telly hard to turn off, is the number of small children and assorted locals who's enthusiasm for the project shines through. They even get tested to see if they are Viking, Anglo Saxon, Roman or vestigial Welsh speakers. A sleepy village that could have easily been by passed and allowed to stay ignorant of it's past, is now literally getting it's collective hands dirty finding out about itself. During the programme, locals will read written accounts from throughout  the ages and no doubt come across direct blood relatives in the process. How can even the most jaded disreputable youth or bored pensioner be left unmoved after this much effort.

My favourite bit so far has been the Roman burial mound, though not touched in the broadcast, we learn it was the tomb of one of the last pre Roman nobles of the area. What the mound underpins , is the notion that despite many changes and new neighbours, the original inhabitants never actually left. They adapted from one regime to the next.  Anglo Saxons, Vikings and later on Normans ( who we'll see next time we're told) all contributed to the place names and the language spoken in the area without significantly displacing the previous influences.

One dark message in the first episode is the stark warning that with the fall of civilizations , come dark ages that are hard to come out of. This point is hammered home by the loss of Roman technology in 410 AD that would not be equalled before the 18th century. Will we suffer the same fate he asks, when the petrol runs out. I would argue  we already have to some extent, in as much as we are far more dependent on the skills of an increasingly smaller group of technologically gifted individuals and nations, having on a massive scale lost completely, certain previously common skill sets while others are clearly on the endangered list. If tomorrow the electricity and petrol stopped, our civilization is so thoroughly caught in its own technological trap that the very notion of going back to some of the old ways is impossible now. The decent into subsistence farming and crude tools would be rapid and brutal in some places.

I for one will be watching till the end. The prospect of missing out on some new nugget of information is too great. Yes I'm a history anorak and proud of it, and anything that gets an entire community so involved is not a bad thing. Catch up on the iPlayer here, and if you're like me, record it . Follow up review of next episode  from Domesday to the Plague.


jimbag said...

Just a quick point: they claim that surnames derived from notable Vikings implies a direct descendancy of bloodlines. Is this not a bit of a leap of faith? There are plenty of ex-slaves in America who have surnames like Washington, Jackson, Jefferson, Franklin...are we to assume that they, too, are related to the founding fathers?

CommonMan said...

I am not sure how authentic the information is in this program or how well it has been researched. For example, it claims the bubonic plague that hit England originated in India. All research seems to point to the origin being Central China spreading via merchant ships by sea and via the Silk Route and may have passed through India.

Before someone says close enough that discrepancy has historical and biological significance.

Anonymous said...

I've just seen ep 1, being from NZ. I'd like to query Wood's claim Britain didn't reach the same level of civilisation after the Romans left until the 16th C. I'd like to argue that the Normans were better administrators than the Romans. The Romans had no Magna Carta. The Romans failed to conquer Scotland. The great cathedrals and castles to me excel Roman architecture. The Romans weren't as fantastic as a lot of people claim, e.g. Terry Gillian's book and series on Rome and the Barbarians.