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DVD Review: Michael Wood’s Story of England

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Michael Wood (b. 1948) is a British historian and broadcaster whose Story of England originally aired on the BBC in 2010. This highly acclaimed series presents the history of England in a novel way, by focusing on life in the village of Kibworth, Leicestershire over the past 2,000 years. When the series aired on PBS in the United States last April, it was in an abridged, four-episode format. BBC Video has just released the full six-episode Michael Wood’s Story of England as a double-DVD set. After watching it, I must say that the program merits all of the accolades it has received. This is a fascinating lens to view the history of England through.

We begin with “From Romans to Normans,“ which traces the first thousand years of life in Kibworth. It is an incredible thing to see the buried evidence of the Roman occupation of the village, which took place over 2,000 years ago. Wood and his crew utilize tools such as an underground “radar” contraption, and DNA to paint a picture of life in Kibworth in those days. Some of the discoveries include evidence of Anglo-Saxon and Viking civilizations, as well as that of a buried Roman villa.

Episode two is “Domesday to Magna Carta.“ We have traveled all the way to the year 1066, and the village is under the rule of the Normans. It is not a happy period, as the occupation affected every resident. Yet time moves on, and with the help of present-day locals, Michael charts events leading up to the Civil War of Simon de Montfort.

Moving into the 14th century for the “The Great Famine and the Black Death,” we are in a tragic time. The Great Famine was the worst in European history, followed by the plague that has come to be known the Black Death. Once again, Wood has enlisted the help of the current residents in discovering evidence of this horrific era in their past. Something positive did come out of all the anguish though. It was during this period that much of what came to be thought of as a distinct idea of an English community and character began to emerge.

Even though this period was a horrible period in the history of the village, it is heartwarming to see present-day kids helping out by digging archaeological test pits. For some reason, “History” is often presented as a dry and boring subject. As Wood shows throughout the series however, it certainly does not have to be that way. These schoolchildren are not only helping with the project, but are discovering how interesting history can be.

We are still in the 14th century for the beginning of the fourth program, “Peasant Revolt to Tudors.” In it we find the beginnings of an educated citizenry with the building of the village’s first school. This was also the time of the Hundred Years War, in which some of the men of Kibworth fought and died. Other villagers joined in the rebellion of King Henry V. While all of these events were going on, there was another important cultural change taking place, the rise of capitalism. We see the beginnings of what we now call the “middle class,” with some of the village’s residents becoming merchants in the textile town of Coventry.

“Henry the VIII to the Industrial Revolution” is the fifth episode of the series and dramatically recalls the English Civil War, and King Henry the VIII’s Reformation. Our journey in The Story of England has now reached the 17th century. One of the most memorable moments of the entire series comes during this program. It was during this time that England was exiling criminals to Australia. A young highwayman was sent there, and Wood brings back his Aussie descendents to uncover their roots. As one can imagine, it is quite an emotional experience for them. The episode leaves off just as the Industrial Revolution is reaching the village.

“Victoria to the Present Day” is the final chapter. Wood’s methods continue to bring the village’s history to life, in some very memorable ways. Once again with the help of local Kibworth villagers, he exposes a “secret” history of life during the Victorian age that is quite intriguing. I also enjoyed the re-creation of what were called the “penny concerts” during the 1880s. This concluding show takes us through the horrors of both World Wars, and on into today. In the closing we see the villagers building “Homes For Heroes,” as a legacy of their world for generations to come.

The accolades Michael Wood’s Story of England has received are well-deserved. The location for the tale is perfect, as Kibworth is actually an amalgamation of three ancient hamlets, and lies in the very heart of the country. As a citizen of the U.S., it is a strange thing to see the history of land presented in this way. An “old” building for our nation is 100 years. To see the remains of a 2,000 year-old Roman villa laying beneath someone’s field is astounding to me.

Through it all, Wood’s engaging style, and the villagers themselves make all of this history come to life an incredibly vibrant way. Michael Wood’s Story of England is one of the most entertaining and illuminating “history” shows I have seen.

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