Michael Wood’s ‘Story of England’

Year: 2010

Genre: Documentary

Broadcaster: BBC FOUR

URL: http://bobnational.net/record/70834

For a local, family and community historian the premise of Michael Wood’s Story of England is an excellent one. Taking a multi-discipline diverse approach it aims to explore the development of a modern community through its historical past.  The program creates a narrative of how national and international events affected the local community, through those who lived and worked in it and its buildings, culture and institutions. It promises to encapsulate the ideal, a ‘Tale of one place through the whole of our history’.

The series consists of six parts which ambitiously spans a vast historical swathe from the Romans to modern times and my own viewing, episode 5, commenced with the Reformation and culminated at the Industrial Revolution. The geographical location for the series is Kibworth in Leicestershire and the focus is on the three villages of Kibworth Beauchamp, Kibworth Harcourt and Smeeton Westerby.

The Story of England has a fine ancestry, feeding from other popular historical programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are, Time Team and reality programmes such as The 1900’s House. But rather than being a passive observer Michael Wood challenges the viewer to engage actively with their history to look at primary sources, visit heritage centres and look at and engage with the built environment and all that may be available for their own location, their family, their house and their community.

In order to deliver its aims this series has to convey, in a short space of time, a wealth of information, without becoming a dry information documentary. This is tackled in a variety of ways, seamlessly combining the visual, auditory and intellectual. To set the scene for the programme’s aims the title introduction sees evocative scenes of the village transforming from the medieval to the modern before your eyes overlaid with sepia images of times and people past.

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The wide availability and potential use of primary sources is shown through various discussions throughout. For example, with archives as a backdrop, a discussion based on correspondence takes place about the Dissenters in the Civil War, of which in Kibworth there were ‘200 of the middling sort’. In another scene the will of John Iliff, a Catholic man, is used to demonstrate what a wealth of information is contained in the 20,000 Tudor wills that are held at the National Archives. John Iliff’s will reveals that a material world is developing during the Tudor Reformation as he had possessions in every room of the house.

A different perspective is brought to the written sources when during a section on the plight of the framework knitters the voices of local residents bring to life historical documents. Alongside this the life of the workhouse building is re-created for the current owners using historical documents and the evidence of the building’s construction.

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Alongside the importance of traditional research, using primary source material, whether that be at the local church, archive room or at a national institution, this series also sets out to demonstrate the sheer variety of alternative non-written historical research that can be engaged in by introducing other avenues of exploration and investigation.  There are visits to museums and interviews with specialists in their fields. These include a discussion at Foxton Canal Museum about the impact that the arrival of the newest transport system, the canals, had on Kibworth in 1790. A school trip to the Wigston Framework Museum shows children that history is alive and within touch as they witness first- hand what life was like for a child of a similar age to themselves.

The innovation, in 1609, of maps is discussed by Michael Wood as he informs that for the first time individuals could see what their village looked like and villagers knew who owned what and by walking in the countryside the viewer can see how the landscape can inform our understanding of farming and enclosure. In the centre of Kibworth a community archaeological dig, unearthing smashed pipe bowls, reveals that Kibworth was on the route of a major turnpike road between London and Leicester.

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A vibrant addition which appeals to all the senses is the re-enactment group, the ‘Sealed Knot Society’, marching through the village to the nearby Naseby battlefield recalling the Civil War that split the allegiances of the village communities.

There is much that could be criticised in this series. The time frame is perhaps too ambitious and often reference to national events is fleeting and touches only on the main events. But the events chosen do have real relevance for Kibworth history. It was also fortunate that the records for Kibworth are so extensive and available featuring notable individuals such as John Aikin, Unitarian preacher and Anna Barbauld, innovative children’s author. It is my own experience that this is not the case for every village. However it is also surprising what influential individuals do exist in your locality once you start digging.

What this series does do very successfully is demonstrate what can be achieved, in a variety of ways, by interested individuals for the local communities they are interested in, which all have their own story to reveal should someone care to look. In my view any method by which historical interest is created has to be a good thing. The real success is perhaps summarised  through the Kibworth Village History Day which demonstrates that everyone regardless of age can become involved in their local history and after the cameras left the project did not stop resulting in interpretation panels, a lottery heritage grant and guide booklets.

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