Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Michael Wood, television historian

'I wrote a letter as King Harold'

Michael Wood, 59, presents "The Story of India" on BBC2 on Friday evenings, and wrote the book of the series. His 80 television documentaries include "Saddam's Killing Fields", "Hitler's Search for the Holy Grail", "In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great", and "In Search of the Trojan War". He recently presented the first television biography of Shakespeare



I went to two different primary schools in Manchester. Both are now low in the league tables but they had fantastically devoted staff and both were very important in my life. Heald Place Primary is in Moss Side. I really loved that area, though it has a bit of a reputation for guns now.

When I was eight, we moved to Wythenshawe and I went to Benchill Primary, which got me into Manchester Grammar. Nobody had ever gone there from Benchill, and that year two of us got in. You had to sit two sets of exams for this direct-grant school: 2,300 people for 100-odd places. Scary. I was so lucky and got a scholarship.

I dedicated my biography of Shakespeare to two English teachers: Brian Phythian and Bert Parnaby. They took us to Stratford, which seemed a very exciting trip. At school I played girls' parts at first, with [the actor] Robert Powell in the male lead: I was Grusha in the first British amateur production of Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

Sometimes, extracurricular activities can be liberating for a young person. I did a lot of sport, especially football. I didn't play for my school, but we formed a Sunday league team, and I went on to captain my college team at Oxford.

I was still 14 when I did O-levels, and I did A-levels, in English, French and history, at 16. I didn't do history at O-level, but it was my great love. I was fascinated by original sources: I would go to the Manchester library before football on Saturday to consult books such as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Indeed, it was through the Anglo-Saxons that I got into a bit of bother with Montgomery of Alamein, the war hero. He wrote an article about how the Anglo-Saxons had lost in 1066 because they were a backward bunch of pot-bellied drunks, so I wrote a letter – ostensibly from King Harold – explaining what really happened. Montgomery was slightly prickly and wrote to the school saying that he gathered that "King Harold" was a pupil at MGS! It was my ambition to write a big book about the Anglo-Saxons... and it still is.

I always feel envious of people who went on the hippie trail to India. (I've since filmed in Kabul, one of the great places on the trail, but it was under siege at the time.) Instead, I sat the Oxford entrance exams and was really lucky: I won a scholarship to read history at Oriel. It's a wonderful college but I felt that the history curriculum at that time was rather like doing A-levels again, and I just wanted to get on to the real sources.

English, by contrast, seemed a wonderful world where you read Beowulf and took tea with Tolkien. I got an upper Second, not a First, which might well have been my fault as I hadn't been to any lectures or tutorials in my penultimate term. Also, I had the chance in my final year to tour the States for six weeks with A Midsummer Night's Dream.

I went back to Oxford to do a postgraduate degree. I should have got the DPhil – on "The Creation of England in the 10th Century" – but it was just too big a task that I'd set myself, and after three years I applied for a job as a journalist with ITV.

Since then, I've made TV films and written books and articles on the Anglo-Saxons – and still have 40,000 words of the thesis on my computer. My old friend the late Patrick Wormald, who was a great medievalist, used to joke that I knew more about King Aethelstan (King Alfred's grandson) than anybody since King Aethelstan!

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin