Top positive review
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Involving history of England's everyman. High class documentary
on 10 October 2010
This high quality six-part BBC series is world away from the average modern history `infotainment' programme. Historian Michael Wood, more normally seen in some exotic foreign location, brings enthusiasm and expertise to the subject and makes several thousand years of past events accessible to a wide audience.
This series is involving and informative, but it's not dumbed down or endlessly repetitive. There's no running and shouting in false excitement which plagues some archaeological digs, no tedious/preposterous dramatic reconstructions. Just plenty of info and insight, examined and shared by a congenial, knowledgeable host.
Wood aimed to tell the story of England as seen from the perspective of the common man, not simply the usual list of kings and queens and dates, which can feel sterile and separate from the reality of actual life. He chose Kibworth in Leciestershire because it is so well represented in various written archives: by fluke, a collection of three hamlets happen to be recorded in all manner of old documents giving a unique insight into the life and times of families 500 and more years ago. The paperwork was kept safe in an Oxford College archive, stashed within the library's stone walls where fire couldn't threaten this collection of revealing details about daily life.
Kibworth is also geographically slap-bang in the middle of the country, and was thus affected by almost every major turning point in British history, be it invaders from the south, east or north, or plague and pestilence. In many ways Kibworth could be `any village', and it serves extremely well to represent the typical development of English society over two millennium and more. Although Kibworth forms the centrepiece of the programmes, Wood wanders further afield as well, and as required to demonstrate any significant points of history where the Kibworth records have a gap in them. This is a mature investigation, not one hide-bound by nonsensical TV formalities...
The series involved an enormous commitment from the production team and took many months to research and film. The result is not only rewarding in depth as well as breadth, but also an intriguing reflection of a modern village throughout an average year. Part of what makes each programme very rewarding to watch is the involvement and enthusiasm of the local people, who played an enormous part in this project. They dug some 50 or 60 archaeological pits, supervised by historians and experts (including Carenza Lewis; always nice to see her on camera!), and found all manner of artefacts from pre-historic through Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods, past the Middle Ages and up to the late Georgian. One of the interesting on-camera experts was a bike-riding dude who knew his pot sherds backwards; someone would show him a fragment of battered ceramic and he could almost say whose workshop it had come from, 1500 years ago!
The series is divided into six periods from Romans to Normans; Domesday to Magna Carta; Great Famine and Black Death; Peasant's Revolt to Tudors, and then through the Industrial Revolution and two Word Wars. So we experience life in village England as revealed by the Roman villa and Norman castle, or the activities of viking settlers (including how place-names evolved from their language); from the effects of the 100 years war to the beginning of an education system and how it affected locals, all the way past the suffragettes, and Luftwaffe bombing in WW2.
High points for me included the Gar Tree, a local gathering / speaking point. Also, some of the best moments come when Wood examines actual documents from hundreds of years ago, poring over crumbling, yellowed pages, using his handy magnifying glass and translating from old English, rejoicing when a familiar family name pulls the thread of a story together. Proper historical research - as it occurs, on camera!
Low points? Hardly any... although I suspected that the `discovery' of a Norman `castle' at Kibworth was maybe a little more wishful thinking than an actual reality.
The filming is more intimate and relaxed than in a typical history series; Wood narrates each segments and does a goodly number of turns to camera while bounding around the landscape (wearing his trademark blue scarf, we noted), but his is far from the only voice we hear. Actually, some of the vox pop interviews get a bit repetitive, as does the footage of local folk in the pub. However, when local villagers speak the recorded words of their predecessors, it brings a very personal touch to details of what work they owed their landlord, or how many people they'd laid to rest in a period of plague. There are some extremely poignant, human moments.
I've just one big gripe about the DVD release: it could have been so much longer than just the original six 60 minute programmes. There must be tonnes of unused footage, and it would have been ideal to re-edit the episodes to give greater detail - or simply create a couple of extra bonus programmes for us enthusiasts.
The nature of the filming is rather more restrained than on, say, Michael Wood's Indian history series. It's less flamboyant and a little humdrum at times. However, the English countryside still provides some breath-taking moments, admirably captured by the crew.
If you ever felt really frustrated that Time Team only touches the tip of the iceberg (and that most TV archaeology progs end just as they start to get interesting), then the Story of England should prove thoroughly rewarding. I've enjoyed every episode and my understanding of how English culture and customs has grown considerably.