Michael Wood on the history of you and me

Michael Wood's new BBC TV series tells the history of Britain through the lives of the forgotten 'ordinary' people. He spoke to Rob Attar about the making of the programmes, and why it is time for a different approach to the past

Two medieval men thresh a sheaf of wheat in this 14th century illustration. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Michael Wood on uniting the national narratives

All the constituent parts of the UK have very different histories.

And we’re quite aware that we’re making these films at a time when Scottish independence is being widely mooted. The persistence of national and regional identities is one of the things that interests us a lot in this series, so nobody is trying to impose a false construction. All we are saying is that our destinies have been intertwined by history. We’re teasing the threads between the different narratives and showing how these things link up.

Michael Wood on the rulers writing history

History has always been told from the side of the rulers. You’ve only got to look at the official historiography of the Peasants’ Revolt to see this. It wasn’t the system that was wrong – it was a bunch of motiveless troublemakers who rioted and murdered.

But when you penetrate behind the rhetoric of the ruling class historiography, you see of course that the rebels did have a programme and that many of the things they fought for did come to pass over the next few decades.

The same applies to historical writing on the 16th century. I was brought up believing the Protestant Reformation was consensual and that Catholicism was just mumbo-jumbo superstition. But great modern historians such as Eamon Duffy, Patrick Collinson and Susan Brigden have, in the past 30 years, made us totally rethink this. When you read Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars it makes you better understand what the English people actually went through over that period of about 70 years when the establishment fought itself over the way things were going to be.

Michael Wood on turning the map around

As a student I read Fernand Braudel’s book on the Mediterranean. He had a great map where the Mediterranean was turned upside down so the Sahara bulked over the top and the strip with Italy, Greece and Spain was at the bottom. From that you understood that the climate of the Sahara is what has dominated the Mediterranean and its life.

For Britain you can also gain a huge amount by standing outside the south-east and turning the map around. You can rotate the map of the Irish Sea, putting Liverpool at the top and Dublin at the bottom, and from that you can see that the Irish Sea throughout history has been a kind of free trade zone and zone of communication for the people of Dublin, Liverpool, Belfast, north Wales and south Scotland. These are people who had more in common with each other than any of them did with London.

In the first episode we’ve looked at the transformations that happened in the Irish Sea zone during the Dark Ages. We’ve looked at how Latin culture and Christianity survived in that great belt from Glasgow to northern Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. At the same time the ancestors of the English – if I dare put it that way – the Anglo-Saxons were impoverished immigrants on the fringe of the collapsed eastern provinces of Roman Britain.

Michael Wood on underestimating our ancestors

The areas where historians are radically revising ‘ordinary’ people’s history are in questions of education and participation. There’s a wonderful website for the Henry III Fine Rolls project (which anybody who is interested in our medieval past should look at because it is incredible stuff). It contains amazing court cases from the 13th century, where you see our ordinary ancestors not as dullard peasants ploughing the fields but as people with aspirations and ideas. Many of them were literate as well. In the Peasants’ Revolt the peasant leadership used letters to communicate.

The underestimation of our ordinary ancestors is one of the biggest problems we face. You’ve only got to look at the thousands of court rolls that survive from the 13th and 14th centuries to see how our ancestors were constantly in negotiation against the conditions in which their lords held them. That sense of the ordinary people’s creativity and initiative is a growing perception.

Michael Wood on the value of TV history

Our job is to be entertaining, accurate and informative and to make people think. People can look elsewhere if they want to know more about these subjects, but our duty as a primetime history series is to excite people, to add that element of ‘Gosh, I never knew that!’

You do always hope that you will inspire people. I’ve been making programmes for 30 years and I still get letters from people who say they started doing history from watching them. It’s great if people are entertained and informed sufficiently for it to make them want to study the subject or to take part in the life of their community in this way.

Michael Wood on making sense of the present

The past gives meaning and value to the present. That is the crucial thing. Britain has gone through tough times since the 1950s, with the decline of our industries. We’ve been filming in Corby, Govan, the Black Country and the Potteries, which are iconic areas in our history, which helped make us the workshop of the world. They’ve all been badly hit and they’re now having to rebuild. And this also involves looking again at their history. It is remarkable when you look at, say, the Govan Reminiscence Group and see how powerfully history can contribute towards a renewed sense of value and identity in the community.

Michael Wood on getting communities involved

In our first episode there is a huge community dig in Long Melford. There was also a big involvement of volunteers in Caerleon, plus a community dig in Elgin and a fantastic dig by inner-city kids at Borough Hill, Leicestershire. In the series we see the people engaging with their history in all sorts of ways.

The Govan Reminiscence Group are recovering the oral and documented history of the rise of Govan as a shipyard in the 19th century, even tracing their ancestors back to Gaelic speakers in the Isle of Skye and the Western Isles, who came to the area for work.

These projects are all very inspiring. People who participate in the community digs get a real sense of empowerment from following the projects through. They’re not being talked down to by the experts; they’re learning the basics, getting advice, but doing it themselves.

There is a lady in Halesowen who was a teacher and then learned Latin and Tudor palaeography to produce an edition of the 16th-century wills of Cradley Heath. All over the country people are doing things like this. It’s really terrific.

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Michael Wood is a historian, author and broadcaster. Over the past 30 years he has produced more than 100 television documentaries