‘Somerset. Winter 877,’ said the subtitles below an arty, BBC-nature-doc style close-up of a coot paddling amid the reeds on the eerie black waters of the Somerset levels. ‘Yes!’ I went, mentally punching the air. ‘I’m in safe hands here, I can tell. Bet they’re going to get all the costume details totally right. There might even be battle scenes. Not crap three-men-with-shields-filmed-over-and-over-again-from-different-angles-with-a-shaky-camera like in the bad old days. But totally convincing CGI-enhanced ones. The Battle of Ashdown, done even more realistically than it was in 871. Yay!’
Then it got even better. The voiceover began mellifluously reading excerpts from the Anglo-Saxon chronicle about ‘se cyning Aelfred’ — and there I was, right back in my first year at Oxford, feeling smug because I knew that you pronounce the ‘y’ in ‘cyning’ a bit like the French ‘u’. By this stage I was in transports of trainspotterish Anglo-Saxon ecstasy.
Now a head was emerging from the reed beds. ‘Hmm. Not quite my idea of King Alfred. Bit old. And what in God’s name is he wearing?’ I thought, before realising that the man wasn’t an actor and he wasn’t supposed to be King Alfred and that I’d seen that frightful hippie tramp coat and heard that blood-curdlingly whispery-wheedling voice before. ‘NOOOOOOO!’
Look, I’m sorry if you’re a massive Michael Wood fan. Or, indeed, if you’re Michael Wood. It’s just that as soon as he appears on the screen I lose all ability to concentrate. It’s that intent, quizzical, gimlet-eyed way he looks at you, like one of the more intelligent female monkey characters from Planet of the Apes; and that imploring, nurturing, unsettlingly euphoric manner, like some evangelical Christian who has just dropped a pill and wants you to know Jesus not just because He died for your sins but because He’s the best, most amazing friend you could ever possibly meet.
This kind of patter makes me feel like I do in Peter Pan during that hideous audience participation moment where you’re expected to declare your belief in fairies (Die, Tinkerbell. Die!) or when you have to make the ‘sign of peace’ in church (sorry, madam, how do I know where that hand’s been?). If I’m going to get into King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons (BBC4, Tuesday) — and it’s hardly going to be a struggle, is it? He’s only one of the greatest English military heroes there ever was — I want to do so on the strength of the material, not because some overenthusiastic berk in a silly overcoat is telling me that in a very real sense Alfred is the quintessential quintessence of everything that makes Our Island People who we are today. (Or whatever: I couldn’t take it in.)
Obviously, if Wood’s speciality were documentaries about, say, racism or the 1950s anti-nuclear movement or how hard it was being gay in a village in Donegal in 1927, it wouldn’t matter. You’d never watch so you wouldn’t care. Problem is, though, Wood happens to have cornered the market in stuff you really do want to see: grand, sweeping historical narratives — usually involving great violence and exotic locations taking up vast swathes of the licence fee budget. And speaking as someone who contributes to that licence fee I resent this. There are only so many documentaries per century the BBC is ever going to make about the amazing life of King Alfred. And now that’s it — blown — for at least the next decade, and probably the next two. By the time they do another, I might actually be dead.
David Starkey, on the other hand, now there’s a presenter. I’d even watch him do the racism one. Or the documentary about Michael Foot and other men in duffel coats marching on Aldermaston. It’s that combination of gravitas and deep knowledge and authority, rendered thrillingly compulsive by that seething undercurrent of but-barely-suppressed right-wing fury about how blitheringly awful everything has become these days and how much better things were when we still had Values. God, I love David Starkey! In fact, it’s quite possible that David Starkey IS God.
Take his latest series Music and Monarchy (BBC2, Saturday), it sounds so contrived, doesn’t it, like it really ought not to work? But what, in anyone else’s hands, might have been grovelling or ponderous has, with Starkey at the helm, become one of the year’s minor masterpieces. It tells you stuff you didn’t know: Henry V, a composer, really? It’s beautifully shot: a periwigged orchestra travelling down the Thames on a barge playing Handel’s Water Music; choristers at Eton and in the Royal Chapel and at King’s, Cambridge; authentic period chamber orchestras in great houses. And, most impressively, it makes not the slightest concession to dumbed-down modern audiences.
During this week’s third episode, covering the 18th century, for example, we paused after a concert (through which Starkey had sat, as is his wont, rapt and queenly — making an excellent stand-in for a real monarch) while the singer was allowed to explain to us what it is that makes English music so English. It has to do with the spaces, apparently. Foreigners would fill them with flourishes, whereas we don’t go in for that sort of thing. Handel quickly learned this, which is why, despite his being German, we rightly consider him one of ours.