'The real-life other side of Downton Abbey' gets covered by 'Michael Wood's Story of England'

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When historians trace the story of a nation, the focus is often on fierce battles and invading hordes, mighty monarchs and vast armies, grand houses and lavish castles, great cities and centers of commerce.

Then there are the rest of us.

On Tuesday, July 3, starting with a two-hour episode, then airing one-hour episodes on July 10 and 17 (check local listings), PBS' "Michael Wood's Story of England" travels from Roman times to modern times while never leaving one settlement in the heart of England.

Over 2,000 years, Kibworth, in Leicestershire, lived through Caesar's armies, Norman conquerors, revolts, plagues, Reformation, civil war, world wars, public housing and the digital age.

"This is the real-life other side of 'Downton Abbey,' " Michael Wood tells Zap2it, referring to the BBC costume drama about early 20th-century British aristocrats that's become a huge hit on PBS' "Masterpiece Classic." "This is the real-life people's story, the ordinary folk of Britain and how they got on, how they did things.

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"I chose a little place in the Midlands of England. It's a very, very ordinary place, not like your classic English village, the kind you see on a chocolate box or a Christmas card, with the winding lane and the thatched cottages and ivy on the church and all that stuff.

"It's a really regular place. It's on a main road; it's got a council estate; it's got Chinese and Indian takeaway restaurants. It's had industry and all the rest. But it's got a fabulous set of records. There are plenty of villages that have got more ancient records in England, but what's great about this one is, from the 1200s, you've got everybody who lived in the village recorded."

Wood also needed a place that reflected both the agrarian and manufacturing sides of the English economy.

"One half of the village stayed agricultural," Wood says, "and the other half got little factories with framework knitting machines in the Industrial Revolution. The canals came and the railways. It's possible to tell the tale all the way through."

Even though Kibworth - population roughly 4,800 (as of the 2001 census, though Wood says it has about 6,000 now) - might not be used as the setting for a sumptuous period drama, it drew Wood in.

"I always had Kibworth in mind," he says, "for many years, actually, more than 20 years. But I had looked at others." He gives a hearty laugh. "I confess, I'd looked at others that were more picturesque.

"You can imagine, when you pitch this to the BBC and say you want to do the story of an English village, they go all misty-eyed. But it was the ordinariness, at the end, that I thought would make it count. So that's how we did it."

It was also the just-right bowl of population porridge.

"It's not a tiny village," Wood says. "It's got about 6,000 people. But it's far enough away from a big town to be almost the ideal Aristotelian size of a town. I think what he says in his 'Politics,' the ideal size of a town is about 10,000 people.

"You can see how that kind of scale, 6,000 people, they mostly know each other, you can get things done. That aspect of it, I really like."

Along the way, Wood and his film crew began to weave themselves into the tapestry of Kibworth (or, properly, Kibworth Harcourt).

"It was great fun making the series," says Wood. "To be honest, it's actually very easy to get up on the train from London. Sometimes the cameraman who lives north of London would drive up there in the van. We'd dive onto the train, which is very close to where we live, and it would only take 50 minutes on the fast train to get up there.

"We'd meet at the little coffee bar in the village. We almost became locals. It was great."
Episode 1, "Romans to Normans" (July 3), covers Kibworth's first millennium. Episode 2, "Peasants' Revolt and the Black Death" (July 3), follows the village into the catastrophic 14th century. Episode 3, "The Seeds of Reform" (July 10), traces the Hundred Years' War, the Protestant Reformation and the English Civil War. The fourth and concluding episode, "The Birth of Modern England," brings the town from the 17th century to the present.

"We could have made twice as many episodes, to be honest," Wood says. "The modern era, the eyewitnesses and the reminiscences of the Second World War -- the 'land girls' and the prisoner-of-war camps and the German bombings, the Home Guard and the first council estates.

"We just scratched the surface. One place, that's the amazing thing, just one place. It was a really nice experiment, and thanks to the dear old people of Kibworth to bring it to life."
Photo/Video credit: PBS