Michael Wood, whose documentary “The Story of India” is currently airing on PBS, is best known as the globe-trotting historian who has enlightened and entertained viewers about everything from the Trojan War to Shakespeare to Alexander the Great.
But while Wood, 60, studied history at Oxford, he actually began his career as a local TV reporter in his native England, covering workaday events and issues like crime, nuclear power and strikes by Yorkshire miners. Only after six years as a TV journalist was he finally able to pursue his real passion and produce his first full-length history documentary.
Trained As a Historian, He Worked As a Journalist
But journalism is, after all, the first draft of history, and Wood, in a recent e-mail interview, was quick to point out the similar skills required for both professions.
“I trained as a historian and then worked as a journalist,” Wood says. “Both professions it seems to me need curiosity and perseverance; with both you have to make judgments on the relative value of sources; you have to be able to express yourself and shape diverse material into a narrative; you have to try to distill often complex and shifting evidence into what you hope is a reasonably accurate and truthful story.”
Both jobs also require their practitioners to look at things from different sides, and to “remember that there is never just one version of events, and that things are never black and white, despite the pressure (or the temptation) in today’s media to make them so.”
In TV, he adds, this can be especially challenging: It’s “not a great medium for analysis and often demands quick, colorful and simplistic fixes.”
Journalism and history, Wood says, “go together… Historians work the same timeline as journalists but usually further back in time. But the past always informs the present, and the present always informs the past.
“How, for example, can any journalism on say Iraq or the Israel/Palestine conflict not be historically based? Through history the journalist helps the reader or TV viewer understand the world around us.”
A Project That Was Years in the Making
The six-hour “Story of India” took years to become a reality; Wood had traveled widely in India and made a shorter film about it in the 1990s. His production company, Maya Vision International, had been in talks about the project with PBS for several years.
Why India? Wood says India is fascinating simply because it is so different from the West. "The Story of India" spans thousands of years of Indian history - and thousands of miles of the country's geography - as Wood criss-crosses from Kerala in the south to Dehli in the north, then on to Pakistan and Iraq. And that's just in the first few episodes.
“India is perennially interesting simply in itself,” he says. “Difference is something we sometimes freak out about today, but how wonderful difference is, and how diminished we all would be if all difference were eroded.”
A Rising Power
From a journalistic perspective, India’s importance today can’t be overstated, Wood says.
India is the second-most populous nation on earth, the world’s largest democracy and a rising economic power; it has given birth to four world religions and is home to nearly half the world’s Muslims; India and its rival, Pakistan, are both nuclear powers, and simmering tensions between the two nations seem ready to boil over at any moment.
Many experts, Wood says, believe the 21st century will see China and India “rise again to the status they had as the world’s greatest civilizations in the 16th century, before the West and then the U.S. took over. So I think and hope we all want to know a bit about how that has happened.”
Indian civilization, which has developed over millennia, “has many things to teach us all in its own attempts to grapple with the eternal human questions,” Wood adds.
“When we made a film on India in the Legacy series (1991) I always remember getting a letter from a woman who was vice president of a machine tool company in Lubbock, Texas, who had watched it with her family. She said this: ‘You showed us things that we never even dreamed existed.’ And that, I guess, is the point.”