Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Michael Wood, television historian
'I wrote a letter as King Harold'
Thursday 30 August 2007
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!
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