TV: Michael Wood’s “The Great British Story”

Last night I watched my recording of Michael Wood’s new historical series. I am generally terrible at watching television series of any stripe, and the only reason I managed to watch this was thanks to Sky+ (and the only reason I will get to watch subsequent series is thanks to Series Link). I had high hopes for this, as I really do like Michael Wood. In fact it was one of Michael Wood’s earliest series (In Search of the Trojan War) that got me first interested in history, and I have never looked back.

The first episode at least did not disappoint.

A few obvious things – this series is clearly taking the opportunity to reflect on British history and the British people in the lead-up to the Diamond Jubilee. It is also occurring quite fast on the heels on The Story of England, which looked at the history of England through the lens of one English locality – and no doubt it is similar – but unlike the Story of England does not restrict itself to just one area of the country. It is also very much a general history. I have read some negative comments about this – but a series of this nature is only ever talking about history in large sweeps. That means one can always find it lacking on details. In a sense therefore myself and other history buffs are not the target audience.

Except we should be.

The series is called “The Great British Story“. I do not think that word is accidental. Modern history began, quite literally, in the public spaces of Athens and other Greek cities as Herodotus declaimed his Enquiries. The Greek word became our word History. Herodotus was Enquiring about the recent history of his own times, the wars between the Greek city-states and the Persian Empire. All history is of course an enquiry, if only to answer the question of “What happened here?”. Herodotus was also telling a story. Storytelling is a very powerful historical technique, and I think the truest method of conveying the past. To be sure there is a place for technical academic articles discussing in fine details one point or another. There is no excuse for poorly written ones however that cannot link the sometimes dry facts with the wider historical narrative.

Narrative – another word to do with Story.

You don’t have to spruce history up to tell a good story – quite literally the history of humanity is full of the greatest stories (alas, for too many are untold). You just have to let the history do the talking. Michael Wood is excellent at doing this.

Michael Wood is also very keen on drawing links between the past and present. This tendency was evident right back in In Search of Trojan War, and it has become more and more pronounced with time. It is not for everyone.

With all that I thoroughly enjoyed this episode. I didn’t learn anything “new” in terms of major events – but then I never expected I would. The story was also simplified, and if one is of a picky disposition one could claim this makes errors (but in a general overview, this is unavoidable). That said, there were a few details about recent excavations and discoveries that I hadn’t heard about.

What stood out most though was how Michael Wood wove the very complicated strands of British History in the first five or so centuries of this island’s history into an interesting tapestry. I am sure his great hope is that he will spark the imagination of some of his viewers to find out more. He had that effect on me more than twenty years ago, and yet, this one episode already has me itching to pick up another history book and find out yet more stuff about us.

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4 comments
  1. Bernard said:

    Though it’s years ago I quite liked Simon Shama’s “A History of Britain”. That was plenty good.

    • I never really got around to watching that, though that which I saw was good. My favourite Simon Schama Book however is “Citizens” – a really excellent look at the French Revolution which I read while studying it for A-Level. The main course text was Doyle’s Oxford History of the French Revolution, which came perilously close to boring me to tears. “Citizens” however managed to convey the drama and a far better sense of the personalities that were such a force in that powderkeg.

  2. Ken Simpson said:

    I have watched all 4 installments so far,but now find it’s been dropped because of sports coverage.spent ages trying to find new schedule,when i did it just says “sometime in july”,really not good enough,

    • I have only managed to watch the first 2 so far – but I agree, “sometime in July” is rather poor. Just shows that, despite the BBC rhetoric, they do dumb down.

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