The title “The Story of China With Michael Wood” suggests a huge project — and having also told his “Story of England” and “The Story of India,” British historian Wood is the man for the job.
Also the guide for viewers in such other programs as “In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great,” “In Search of Shakespeare” and “Conquistadors,” Wood returns to PBS by canvassing China in his new six-part series airing over three Tuesdays starting June 20 (check local listings). With his typically genial demeanor, he covers 4,000 years of the country’s history, beginning with his research into the First Emperor and various Chinese dynasties, and culminating in his communing with present-day locals in the teeming cities of Beijing and Shanghai.
“I think ‘immersive’ is the thing that you’re looking for in a story like this,” Wood reflects. “What you want is to bring to the PBS audience a sense of being there. I traveled first in China in the early ‘80s and went all over, and I came away with a very strong sense of the hospitality and sociability and friendliness of the Chinese people … which isn’t always how people describe China. I love that. And I remember saying when we started the production, ‘I really want that to come over to the audience, because that’s what the people are like. And also, it will make the series more fun.’”
Even with six hours to tell “The Story of China” (which is produced and directed by his wife and frequent collaborator, Rebecca Dobbs), Wood allows that’s still a fairly compact span to pack the title subject into.
“I think what you’re trying to do is, for a popular audience, an introductory arc of narrative to the story,” he reasons. “Because it is only six hours doesn’t mean that it can’t involve complexity, because the crucial thing is that you have to make the selections really good selections. A 10-hour series would have been great because you could just spread out, but there is a discipline involved in telling a really exciting, coherent narrative in six hours. It still satisfies.”