It normally takes me about five minutes into a history documentary for me to furiously start armchair travelling and searching for flights to discover for myself the exotic locales, the breath-taking architecture and a sense of the imperial court intrigue of the country in question. With Michael Wood’s Story of China, Skyscanner didn’t even get a look in.
One immediately gets the impression that the post-production team realised they had just spent months filming a largely vacuous and dull documentary about one of the most fascinating nations on Earth. Desperately they try to instil some life with the punchy opening sequence which bore little resemblance to what was to come with uncaptioned sepia photos launched at the screen with machine gun speed. What followed included little more than Michael Wood looking at bones and making profound comments like “These buildings are very different from Shanghai” whilst looking at a Chinese provincial high street. I don’t need to be Taoist monk on the cusp of Enlightenment to realise that.
I can’t help but think that with all the clout and high production values behind them, the BBC could have secured interviews with more impressive figures. I struggled to have any interest in listening to the glorified American genealogy tourist, Frank Ching, talk about finding his roots. Genealogy should really stick to Who Do You Think You Are? and even then should only really include Boris Johnson’s ancestor’s saucy affair with the Prince of Württemberg.
I look back to Joanna Lumley’s Trans-Siberian Adventure and realise I’d learnt something more intriguingly new about China before she had even got on the train than I did in the whole hour of watching Michael Wood wander around empty, poorly lit temples scrabbling about to find anything tangible to excite my interest. A viewer would be mistaken in thinking that all the cultural heritage of China lies under a rural barley field and an enormous corrugated roof in the form of the Terracotta Warriors.
There are five more episodes to come but after the first hour, I struggle to believe Michael Wood will be able to bring any gloss to those gems of China’s extraordinary heritage left untouched by the ravages of the Cultural Revolution and rampant urban development.
Personally I’ll leave Michael Wood to his Chinese medicine like concoction of roots and bones and I’ll be eagerly awaiting Robert Peston to take to the stage for his upcoming landmark documentary on China’s meteoric economic rise and debt-ridden slowdown.
Image: Matt Barber