by Allan Fish
(UK 1985 344m) DVD2
Once upon a time there was a town called Troy…
p Bill Lyons, Colin Adams d Bill Lyons w Michael Wood m Terry Oldfield, David Pash
presented by Michael Wood
Though overshadowed by the often superfluous saturation of by-the-numbers historical documentaries offered up on satellite and cable television, there have been numerous impressive contributions to the genre from various prominent specialists. We’ve had great works from Ken Burns, Tony Essex, Jeremy Isaacs and Angus MacQueen that dealt with comparatively recent history, and which are discussed elsewhere in this piece. When it comes to older periods of history, we have had several superb, scholarly treatises by the likes of Simon Schama and David Starkey, as well as the work of tireless enthusiast John Romer, responsible for such impressive, idiosyncratic works as The Seven Wonders of the World, Byzantium and Great Excavations. However, the man who has done perhaps most to promote history to the generally ill-educated masses has to be Manchester’s own Dorian Gray-like historian Michael Wood. Wood had been off our screens for over a decade when he returned in 1998 with In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, a mammoth undertaking which saw him follow in the footsteps of the great warrior conqueror and following the exact route of Alexander’s epic conquests, his irrepressible enthusiasm and intrepidity mixing successfully with a Michael Palin style travelogue. It was great viewing, but it also made one nostalgic for the series that made his name in the early and mid-eighties. He made various programmes and series all In Search of some person or period, from the Dark Ages to William the Conqueror, but his magnum opus still remains In Search of the Trojan War.
In six episodes, Wood follows three different journeys and intertwines them; that of Homer’s ‘The Iliad’ and the characters therein, that of the archaeologists and historians who searched to bring them out of legend and into the history books, and also his own journey to Troy, and how he first became hooked by its legendary mystery. He describes archaeology as “the most romantic of sciences”, and there’s certainly a touch of the romantic about his approach. He’s like the eternal sceptic dying to be proved wrong, drawing you into the story like thousands of people before, but always making sure that hard facts keep one’s feet on the ground. Anybody with a basic knowledge will know his search is a futile one, any conclusions offered mere conjecture, not statements of fact. On that level he might as well be in search of the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail. Yet as with many such things in life, it’s not that final conjecture that matters, it’s the journey. And what a journey he takes us on, both chronologically and geographically, from examining the ruins of theBerlin museum where artefacts were once held to going toIreland to trace the arts of ballad storytelling handed down through generations, and to and fromGreece andAsia Minor.
Looked back upon after twenty years there are some less satisfactory factors, but these are factors that are unavoidable, such as the use of then modern technology, now as seemingly archaic as Troy itself. Such complaints do seem rather petty and narrow-minded, however, for what carries this series – as indeed it does any documentary classic in any field, be it presented by Kenneth Clark, David Attenborough or whoever – is making the enthusiasm contagious to the viewer. From the first words, “in this place there once stood a city”, to the final personal interpretation and take on the story, Wood holds us spellbound. As a reviewer in The Times put it, “Wood has a face to launch a thousand facts, animated and radiating enthusiasm.” What Wood’s most personal reasons for making this particular series were are not clear, yet I would say that his greatest accomplishment is one of conversion. It is through such presentations that the analysis of history, even that of its legends, can both preserve the past and continue for generations. As someone once famously said, “history isn’t was, it is…” This in every sense is.