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!

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
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

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy