Last Night's TV: Michael Wood's Story of England/BBC4
Churches: How to Read Them/BBC4
Thursday 07 October 2010
There is something infectious about Michael Wood's personality. Michael Gove should isolate whatever ambrosia powers his zestful appreciation of history, atomise it, and pump it through air-conditioning systems into teenagers' GCSE lessons. For Wood's detail-obsessed id is the life-force twinkling at the centre of BBC4's Story of England, a series telling the story of a single village through the whole of English history, from the Vikings to the Somme and D-Day, from the point of view of the people, not the rulers.
It's a perspective that we should all bear in mind. Alongside our own mundane realities of London's monstrous Barbicans and Leicestershire's hermetically sealed retail units, another, spectral, world lives on. Its furlongs criss-cross our terraces, its plough-marks parallel our A-roads. Much of the past, for the ordinary man, was tough and, I hate to say it, quite boring. We are in need of Wood's festishisation of primary sources – cooing over old ledgers, barking, windswept, on some dewy hillock – in order to make the most of hindsight and gain some comfort from what could otherwise be as dry as a piece of old, knackered bark.
The village in question is Kibworth, Leicestershire, which Wood describes as "an ordinary place on the A6 with Chinese and Indian takeaways, a Co-op and housing estates." Last night's episode took in the 14th century. Think: serfs and pustules of Black Death simmering up through Europe. A dramatic time, though not dramatised here with gurning extras from The Bill. It was about the people, see, so we got real-time interviews with present-day Kibworthians. It was Big Society TV, the re-empowerment of the community, though less entertaining am-dram histrionics, more Dad's Army-style maps, with a sepulchral smudges representing "disease" spilling across Europe.
Until 1300, around 1,000 men and women lived in the two parishes, Kibworth Harcourt and Kibworth Beauchamp, now occupied by Kibworth's present-day site. They enjoyed relative prosperity. We can learn such things by analysis of ancient rubbish. It was also a time of widespread farming, comprising a rather boring landscape, brown in the autumn, yellow in the summer, with 100 per cent cultivation. Locals had to have an intimate knowledge of the landscape to understand which land belonged to which farmer. Inevitably, one of the most inspiring parts of the documentary was a visit to the owner of the land, Merton College, Oxford, where the owners of each furlong can still be ascertained by reference to a craggy scrawl in the college's beautifully preserved, ancient records. Alongside coating these pages with the orgasmic heave of his worshipful breath, Wood talked through poetry from the time: "On his shoulders rested the mirth of all the land and God's speed well," of the ploughmen. Slightly hilarious close-ups of present-day villagers, intoning the words of their 14th-century equivalents abounded, making you wonder why they've been included. It was needlessly twee, a parochial diversion from the universal themes of work, nature and hardship that are generally quite intelligently addressed. But maybe it's more entertaining this way.
However, this boom time desisted. There were too many mouths to feed, too many people living on areas of land that were too small. Prices became higher, disturbing patterns in the weather ensued, social unrest kicked off. Climate change set in and the village braced itself for disease. Pretty scary times, and the programme's highlight: though a bit of a missed opportunity in terms of drama. In such instances, maybe a bit of theatrical choking could have enlivened proceedings. Still, all in all, something of a warm and fuzzy jaunt for history nerds.
And then, on to Churches: How to Read Them, in which Richard Taylor, a fellow graduate of Wood's from the historians-turned-TV-presenter school at Oxbridge University, where headmaster Tristram Hunt gives classes in hand-waving and unwavering earnestness, takes us through "100 years of British Christian art and symbolism, giving a fresh perspective on the hopes, fears and beliefs of our ancestors".
In this episode, the presenter considered the 19th century's Oxford Movement, in which churches echoed the architecture and rituals of the Middle Ages, and where mass was reintroduced into the High Anglican Church. Those promoting the movement included John Keble, who reminded his congregation that God could eke out punishment to badly behaved Britons, so they'd bally well better step into line, or they'd get some sort of smiting. Thankfully, there's nothing evangelical about Taylor's approach. He seemed pretty sane, even at the end where he visited a happy-clappy modern Christian church where there are some pretty sexy acoustic numbers, hand waving, and non-ironic eye-closing.
There was a beautiful sequence in which Taylor visited 13th-century church, St John the Baptist in Inglesham, where mass-produced changes suggested by Victorian restorers were resisted by a local artist, William Morris, the founder of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. It was a sweet story of local campaigning. A spirit that is admirable, though unlikely to be adopted by a socialist these days. Fun, and made a half-hour fly by.
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