Happy July Fourth, everyone! Care for a couple pints of British history with that Bud Light and burger? No? Well, either way, PBS decided Independence Day Eve was the perfect time to air the first two installments of our former overlords’ history in the form of Michael Wood’s Story Of England.
Wood states his goal early and often: to investigate and celebrate the history of England through a single town. The town does not have to be remarkable; in fact, any grandiosity would mar Wood’s mission to tell the story of an extraordinary nation’s most ordinary people.
Right out of the gate, Story Of England is—incredibly—one of PBS’ most British offerings to date. Both the première (“Romans To Normans”) and its slightly more bombastic follow-up (“Peasants’ Revolt And The Black Death”) are loving odes to all things Britannia. “Romans To Normans” even opens with a montage of Union Jacks, cricket, and a sepia toned Lord Of The Rings-style image of Kibworth, the town Wood picked as his most quintessentially British town.
So why Kibworth? Besides for sounding like a particularly charming JK Rowling creation, it sits dead center in England and apparently boasts a collection of artifacts and documents that can answer the question, “Why are we here?” Or at the very least, “Why are the British here?”
The conceit of focusing on a single town for an entire country’s history pays off with the sporadic asides to local meetings. The good residents of Kibworth even do some talking-head segments, which feel like what would happen if Antiques Roadshow ever visited Pawnee, Indiana (related: Who’s going to start a petition to make Antiques Roadshow visit Pawnee, and do we need a Tumblr?).
Kibworth is the kind of town where residents can rattle off several generations who lived in Kibworth before them. The adults reenact Anglo-Saxon raids while their children dig up their backyards for shards of Roman pottery, like their American counterparts dig up sandboxes with Tonka trucks. If there were any further doubt that Kibworth is capital “B” British, we get plenty of pub scenes to banish our doubts.
The flip side to Story Of England’s human interest side is, of course, the history crash courses. “Romans To Normans” covers a full millennium of history in an hour, while “Peasants’ Revolt And The Black Death” spans centuries of plebeian discontent. Unfortunately, there are several stylistic touches that distract from the history at hand. Phrases like “bobbly gardens” are said to triumphant trumpets, and then 30 seconds later we hear about the fall of the Roman Empire set to shots of snow, sleet, and molding tractors. It’s picturesque, but if you’re going to tell the story of England (arguably one of the most-told stories ever), you better be inventive.
Which is why, for better or for worse, the most engaging part of Michael Wood’s Story Of England isn’t the story, but Michael Wood. You could hardly ask for a more dedicated tour guide through England’s history. Wood, a former hotshot BBC reporter and current hotshot BBC historian, bounds through the episodes with an enthusiasm that often outpaces his subject matter. He delivers the driest of exposition with the same vigor that he exclaims things like, “Someone said there was a Roman villa nearby! Could that be true?!” And as he bounds through the countryside in his amazing Technicolor scarves, you can’t help but want to bound off after him.
As with much of PBS’ programming, Story Of England originally aired on the BBC almost two years ago. However, since the U.K.’s history never seems to go out of style no matter how many mediocre cable series profile it, the delay doesn’t register.
I waffled between a B+ and a B- throughout the two episodes, thanks to Wood’s boundless enthusiasm and the confusing editing choices. Ergo: B.
“Our ancestors will always surprise us.”—Wood’s best line, which I almost missed between gratuitous pub scenes
Best moment of “Romans And Normans”: a bearded Kibworth townsperson nodding and chomping on a chocolate chip muffin mid-dig. Excavators: They’re just like us!
Best moment of “Peasants’ Revolt And The Black Death”: “This section of Leicestershire is very radicalized, politically,” an expert in rubber gloves says in voiceover, as we watch Kibworth’s senior citizens board a bus.