Review: In Search of the Dark Ages – Michael Wood Digs for England
This landmark series launched the TV career of one of Britain’s best-loved presenters and changed the face of the historical documentary.
In a one-off pilot, In Search of Offa, broadcast in January 1979 Michael Wood, in his now-trademark smart-casual attire, went on location to report to camera on the 8th-century Anglo-Saxon King of Mercia. Offa’s realm, centring on the valley of the River Trent and its tributaries, unified much of England south of the Humber, and Wood travelled to the king’s former strongholds and recent excavation sites to piece together his fragmented story.
At the time, documentaries of this type were the exclusive preserve of academics, but Wood’s boyish good looks and enthusiasm struck an immediate chord with viewers. Three further programmes, on Boadicea, King Arthur and Alfred the Great were filmed for broadcast on BBC Two on successive nights in 1980, and the following year saw further programmes on Athelstan, Eric Bloodaxe, Ethelred the Unready and William the Conqueror. This DVD gathers all eight programmes together for the first time in a remarkable evocation of the Dark Ages, told from the very landscapes that shaped English history.
The success of the programmes diverted Wood from a planned career as a medievalist professor and he went on to make other enduring documentary series including In Search of the Trojan War (1985), In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great (1997), In Search of Shakespeare (2003), The Story of India (2007) and, revisiting his first passion, King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons (2013).
This is a lively and engaging examination of an eventful and formative but elusively documented period in British history, and in itself a fascinating artifact of a major groundshift in factual programme-making. Highly recommended.