|In Search of Myths and Heroes -- An Interview with Michael Wood|
|conducted by Sandy Auden|
On a global scale, there is a huge selection of stories available for Wood to explore, so how did he find a focus for a new series?
The format of doing history, adventure and travel had been very successful with programs like Conquistadors and Alexander and our commissioners in the BBC and in America really wanted more of that. So instead of doing something that was straight narrative history, we thought it would be fun to explore that margin between history and myth, where out of a small kernel of history, great myths grow to be told over thousands of years and become almost bigger historical facts than the history itself. I mean there's no evidence that Soloman and Sheba ever existed but they're both viewed as founders of their nations!
So I drew up a list of about ten myths on the back of an envelope and talked them through with our co-producer and commissioners. Some of them were not possible because of conditions, like in Iraq for example, and we ended up choosing a Bible myth, a Greek myth, an Indian myth and a Celtic myth. Obviously there's a geographical spread, and we wanted one to be in Britain.
How long did it take to make the series of four programs?
We started it very quickly in October 2003 and went to film the first one in Nepal/Tibet in mid-November then made the rest in 2004. So the whole thing took 15–16 months. When we did Alexander the Great and the Conquistadors, they took over two years to make with the planning and shooting and editing afterwards.
So this series was really quite fast given the difficulty of the terrain -- Georgia and Tibet and Ethiopia and Yemen, they weren't that easy to operate in.
No historical television series will get very far without research though...
Research helps to focus what you're trying to do and it often gives you the theme. You read somewhere in an old book that in Iran there's this tale of one-man-shows traveling the countryside, story tellers who tell this epic that goes back to the 10th century and before, but these story-tellers were banned after 1979.
When you get to Iran, you go looking for these people. And then you film them in a coffee house and there's the faces of all these ordinary Iranians around them, men and women, kids and all that and it's a very dramatic scene. So sometimes a line in an academic text can give you a very dramatic piece of actuality today.
Making this drama happen takes patience and a lot of organization in advance.
To be quite honest, on the Tibetan trip we could have run into serious trouble with the governments on both sides of the divide. But everything went very well, we were very lucky. In Georgia, that valley in Svaneti is a very difficult area. It has not been possible for outsiders to work in the area for quite some time because of very feud-ridden clans up there. But we had good local advice and the local government had rubbed out a big mafia family who were terrorizing the alley only two months before we went.
It all went really well and we didn't feel threatened anywhere, even traveling in the heartland of Yemen in the aftermath of the war with Iraq and various other things. There was a lot of strong feeling in the Arab world and the Muslim world, but people were fantastically welcoming.
That's not to say that they didn't have some adventures along the way however...
We ended up trying to distract people's attention and pour glasses away at every available opportunity because at the end of a day like that, you have a meal and at 11 o'clock your host says: 'Now we can sit down and drink like men!' And we're like: 'Can we be wimps please?'"
Some of the anecdotes are tinged with Wood's darker sense of humour...
Then they handed the gun to us! We pushed our sound recordist, Callum Bulmer forward. He's this tall, craggy, six foot four New Zealander who happened to have been brought up on a farm and learned to shoot when he was ten years old. Callum proceeded to blow the target to bits with his first shot.
The jaws dropped on these Georgian troops and by the time we'd parted, the legend was already going down the valley that these Brits weren't wimps at all. They could not only drink but they could shoot as well! We had a great deal of laughter about that and everyone took the piss out of us afterwards.
As well as having fun along the way, there's a serious side to Wood's work and the new series focuses closely on the stories and their role in re-constructing history.
Look at King Arthur -- he first appears in the 9th Century as a Welsh freedom fighter, fighting against the Anglo-Saxons; and then by the 12th Century he's the Napoleon of the Middle Ages and marches on Rome and all this kind of stuff. Another 100 years go by and he's this chivalrous figure of romance with knights and round tables and spiritual quests. To the Tudors he's a political figure, and to the Victorians he becomes something else. The same character has the name Arthur but the story has changed out of all recognition.
And obviously it's much more important than any historical fact. One of the things that I've felt throughout is that in the end it doesn't really matter whether King Arthur or Jason or Soloman or Sheba literally existed. Whether there is a historical truth behind the myth or not is quite an interesting question -- it's fascinating to know that there might be a lost civilization in Tibet that's part of the reason for that legend -- but actually the myths are much bigger than the truth.
By following the stories and talking to the people you're getting a handle on the living tradition of the stories. It's something that happened to us constantly when we were doing Alexander the Great, we met people many who knew stories about Alexander. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Central Asia and Iran very few of these stories have any relationship to the history at all. But they're testimony to the myth.
To experience this living connection with the past, Wood completes the journey to distant lands on behalf of the viewer.
I find it terribly moving to encounter the survival of the older ways of seeing. They're not inferior ways at all and sometimes the people have handed that sense of the value of the past down very tenaciously. We know personal friends in South India who are really still part of that Hindu culture of the Tamils. Their inner clock is based on a different time really. I think most human beings would walk into that and be very moved.
In the UK, our spiritual festivals were cut off in the 16th century, we were a traditional society right up to the Reformation. And if it hadn't happened, we'd probably be more like the cultures in France, Italy, or Spain, a more traditional Catholic culture. But that went when those rituals and traditions were specifically barred by the government and the Protestant church and our path took a different direction.
They still had a lot of the farming festivals until the 19th century but our population very much left the land and went to the cities and only a vestige of festivals came through into the 20th century. These are big historical changes.
What you learn when you travel to countries like Ethiopia and Tibet is that changes can happen, very dramatically and swiftly, and they are doing now, across the world. What you learn is that 500 years isn't that long a time in history. It's perfectly possible, and indeed it does happen, that memories and traditions of events from that long ago are handed down very carefully by people.
I've become much more of a believer in the power of oral traditions after the years of filming out in those societies. When you're actually sat there in a university, the professors all say 'oh, it's only an oral tradition.' Because they work in universities, the written document is the thing for them. When you're out in the wilds, you realize that core of traditions can often closely reflect the things that happened a long time go.
Are we losing some of that past with out high speed societies?
So do Wood's programs do anything to alleviate that situation?
Wood has been raising awareness of these issues for over 20 years and he has always demonstrated an unflagging enthusiasm for his work.
It shows that they're not so different in Iraq or China; shows you their great achievements and you understand something about their culture. In a little way, you can empathize with their culture and thinking. As a TV viewer you can feel a bit of what it's like to see things from their point of view. And I think that's a really big thing in today's world.
Our view of the past is changing all the time, because of what we discover, changes in the way we look at ourselves. The past isn't set in stone you see. It changes all the time as we do. The past isn't what's back there, it's here, it's what we make of it today.
Wood's next project with Maya Vision International, his independent film company, is a history of India, set for
broadcast on BBC2 in 2007.
For a real photographic treat, visit the
In Search of Myths and Heroes website.
And for more information about Michael Wood and his production company Maya Vision International,
check out the Maya Vision International website.
For a real photographic treat, visit the In Search of Myths and Heroes website. And for more information about Michael Wood and his production company Maya Vision International, check out the Maya Vision International website.
Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; a diligent interviewer/reviewer for The Third Alternative and Interzone magazines and a combination of all the above for The Alien Online. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. Visit her site at The Auden Interviews.
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