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Interview with public historian Michael Wood

Michael Wood may not have been wearing one of his onscreen trademark scarves when I met him for the interview, but his down-to-earth and friendly style, unceasingly present on TV, was most certainly in tow. What you see on TV is what you get in reality. Professor Wood joined the faculty of History at the University of Manchester this September, and already he has given a public lecture, as well as introductory university lectures, a number of city walking tours for first year History undergraduates, and the first of many film workshops for MA students. A native Mancunian, Professor Wood discusses his extensive academic and onscreen career in Manchester and around the world, and what joining the faculty will mean for students and for him.

What is it like being back in Manchester? Have you returned much since you left for university?
I was born and brought up in Manchester and I went to school here. I went off to Oxford for university but my parents still lived here. I came back and worked with the BBC for about 10 years. Probably half my life I have been here. We did quite a lot of filming in Manchester for ‘The Great British Story’ last year. We filmed at Peace FM, Moss Side, for the last episode, which is where I grew up. It’s an example of how things change through History. In the early nineteenth century it was open fields and became a housing estate for a lot of Welsh especially, but also Irish and Scottish immigrants, and later phases were Caribbean and then Afghan and Somali immigrants. It is one of those suburbs whose character has always changed but some core thing about it has remained and been passed on. I’ve often been back.

For those students who don’t know about the work you’ve done, could you give us a synopsis of your interests and research?
I am a partner in a small film company and we have been going for about thirty years doing history, culture and politics. In the early days we started off doing all kinds of things, when Channel 4 had a kind of radical remit we covered feminist, gay, lesbian, political and anti-apartheid topics. Over the years I’ve made over 120 documentaries on history and culture. Some of them grand sweep history: ‘In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great’, or ‘Conquistadors’, or ‘The Story of India’. Some of them close-up focus like the film we made of the life of a medieval peasant women, or the series we did called the‘Story of England’ which took one village in the East Midlands and its people all the way through history. We are doing a series at the moment with an American writer on pilgrimages across the world from India to Japan to Mecca, and I am making a big series that will finish at the end of 2015 about the early history of China.

I have an academic interest that coincides with an interesting element of the History faculty here [at the University of Manchester], which is Anglo-Saxon and Dark Age history. One of the first films I ever made for the Beeb was about the Dark Ages. We had David Hill, who looked a bit like Tom Baker as Doctor Who, slipping off Offa’s Dyke and that sort of stuff. My academic work was on the early tenth century and I still publish on that. I have several things coming out this year and a bigger book for Oxford University Press on Athelstan. So I have kept that interest going, although it is difficult with all the pressures of a small film company.

How have you managed to balance the academic work with your commitments on television and as a ‘public historian’?
There was a very intensive period through the 80s and 90s where I’d published quite a lot of books connected with TV projects, things like ‘Domesday’ or ‘In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great’ which was number 1 in non-fiction for weeks on end. They were big successes. I wrote a biography of Shakespeare in the early 2000s, which has long been an interest of mine. There are several big interests that I’ve had all my life, and through that period it was quite difficult to consistently publish. Although I worked on stuff on the tenth century a lot of it was unpublished and I just circulated it among scholars. I’ve reached that point now where I’ve circulated a hell of a lot of it and other people are writing on the subject so I really ought to get those out. I’ve got three or four academic works coming out this year and a book for Oxford University Press next year, so I’m trying to get my backlog out.

How and what will you be teaching at Manchester?
I was most keen to do things with the undergraduates but I am doing things with the MA course as well. It’s a big leap from school to university, we can all remember what it feels like to arrive in a new place, and it’s a big leap intellectually too. The excitement of history and exploring different ways of seeing history is what I am quite keen to be involved in.

One of the things I will do is city walks; to actually talk about the industrial history of Manchester because a lot of the undergraduates are modern historians. We’re going to go to Chetham’s and see the place where Marx and Engels worked, and we’ll see the actual books that they ordered up and the statistical surveys and the studies of the working class in Lancashire which they used for the creation of their work. We will go to the People’s History Museum. I’m very keen for everybody to see the kind of archives that are available here because Manchester is really great for that. The People’s History Museum is terrific and the Working Class Movement Library is great. The archaeologist Chris Wilde has been excavating Engels’s Angel Meadows suburb,the ‘hell upon earth’ of the industrial age, and he is going to talk to the students. I’ve got to do it in between filming the ‘Story of China’, as I’ve got little bouts of a week here and a week there.

I’m also hoping to come up for one offs. I’m doing a number of things for the MA course on filming history. I’m workshopping a few films that we made, such as a film I made on the destruction of the Marsh Arabs by Saddam Hussein and the nature of the sources we used for that. Also, a film we did on the Nazi ideologies of race and their historical theories. A colleague of ours is working on a cinema-length film on the Hague war trials, specifically on [Radovan] Karadzic, so we are going to come up and workshop that. I see TV as a kind of link between the professional scholars and the general public. We’re in a popular medium but we use academic research, sometimes of great depth and sometimes stuff that’s not even been published, to help create the picture. What you see on telly is the tip of the iceberg in terms of research. I think our methods are interesting from the point of view of under- graduates as well as the MA course.

I’m very happy, where appropriate, to do public talks. We are certainly planning on doing some public talks with historians. ‘Conversations with historians’ if you like. I’m talking to various people at the moment. Beginning with Tristram Hunt talking about the Victorian age. Professor Janet Nelson, who is one of our greatest historians, has just retired from Kings but she is writing a biography of Charlemagne. She is one of the great medievalists, especially of the early medieval ages, its culture and women’s history. she is an absolutely unbelievable scholar and polymath and she is going to come up and do a ‘conversation’. I am talking to various other friends and contacts about other people coming up, in addition to asking filmmakers,‘Will you come up and workshop a film?’ It’s not quite like a normal university course, but I hope it will be of interest. The thing to do is excite people.

You’ve built a very successful career from history, but was there another career path you might have taken?
English Literature was my other great love, and it still is. That’s why I did three films about Shakespeare in the 80s and I did the four-part documentary about Shakespeare in the 2000s. I made a film about Beowulf recently, for the BBC’s poetry season. I re- ally love literature and it’s very interesting to make films about. I was slightly torn at Oxford. After the first year I thought I’d like to change [from History and English Literature to single honours English Literature] but I didn’t. My Oxford history friends used to laugh and say, ‘My God, the things you used to prattle on about you’re making films about now.’

Is there any part or subject of history that you haven’t explored or researched fully but hope to?
I’ve been interested, for example, in India for a lot of my lifetime. We made ‘The Story of India’ recently and I’ve travelled to India for 25 years or more. I’d still say I’ve only scratched the surface. I don’t speak an Indian language but still travel intensively. There are parts of Tamil Nadu that I know a lot better than places in England. I’ve got lots of friends there and you learn a lot being welcomed by people of another culture into that culture. You carry on learning. History is one of those subjects where, whatever you do in life, you may not carry on after university, but which remains a passion that took you far and that you should never forget.

What do you like to do in your spare time?
I do like travelling. And football. And I love the theatre. I am a governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company and I’m hoping to do something for the Shakespeare anniversary in 2016. I’m writ- ing something about Shakespeare’s mother at the moment for a book that’s coming out in a year’s time. Our bus stop in Camden Town, the 168, goes all the way across Waterloo Bridge and stops outside the National Theatre so we very much like going to the National.

Spare time is a bit more limited than I’d like, because we work so hard. I work with my wife, Rebecca, who directs some pieces. Running a small company, no matter how much you try to delegate, it inevitably falls on you if anything goes difficultly. We’re doing this big series on pilgrimage with an American writer, which has proved a little bit difficult and we are planning it and shooting it, and they are editing it. We make films in a particular way and we shoot them and they don’t see how to edit them. Or at least they edit them in a way that we wouldn’t edit them. So spare time can be a little problematical.

If you could get students to understand one thing what would it be?
With the study of history you have to remember that the people of the past are real people with real experiences and real emotions. It is very difficult sometimes to put yourself in their shoes but you always have to try to do that with sympathy and empathy. It is our imaginations that give them life, which is truer the further back you go.

Work hard and play hard. Manchester is a terrific place to be as an undergraduate but make sure you leave enough time everyday to do the essays and read historical texts as you would a short story. That’s the really exciting thing, to encounter the people of the past. So make sure you give yourself moments for that as undergraduates. If all you do is end up trying to churn out factual answers to essay titles that’s not quite enough I think. You need to put more into it, then you’ll get more out of it.