In Search of the Dark Ages

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In Search of the Dark Ages is a BBC television documentary series, written and presented by historian Michael Wood, first shown in 1980. It is also the title of a book[1] written by Wood to support the series, which was published in 1981.[2]

This series made the reputation of its writer and presenter, Michael Wood, and launched his broadcasting career.[3] The success of the series has been attributed in part to his "down-to-earth and friendly style" (at the time of its first broadcast, Wood was not a practising academic)[4] and in part to the romantic subject matter of the chosen historical figures, many of whom were legendary, even semi-mythical, such as Boadicea and King Arthur (about whom few real facts were known); Wood attempted to penetrate beyond the myths surrounding the chosen subject and to uncover the real historical character.

Television Series[edit]

The television series consists of a number of separate programmes, hence the collective title is often written as In Search of... The Dark Ages; originally it was known simply as In Search of.... Each programme, except the extra-length final one, ran between 35 and 45 minutes.

The series was made by BBC Manchester, Michael Wood being a lecturer (and, eventually, Professor of History) at Manchester University. The producer was Derek Towers.

It began with In Search of Offa, filmed in 1978, shown on 2 January 1979.[5] This was a one-off programme, testing the audience response. When the response was adjudged to be favourable, three further programmes were filmed, in 1979; the three subjects were Boadicea, King Arthur and Alfred the Great. The series first aired on BBC Two over successive nights in March 1980, beginning with Boadicea, and included a repeat showing of the original programme on Offa.

It was such a success in its mid-evening slot that a second series was broadcast in 1981, with subjects including Athelstan, Eric Bloodaxe, Ethelred the Unready and William the Conqueror.

Repeats of the two series continued to air until 1984, bridging the period until Wood's next major BBC series, In Search of the Trojan War, was ready for transmission in 1985. However, it was not actually possible to include again the first programme, about Offa, in the repeats which aired in 1984, as that programme had already had two repeats before then (which was, at the time, the most that was permitted under the BBC's contractual arrangements with the broadcasting unions).

This was a film series; the programmes were made entirely on film, and entirely on location. There were no studio-based scenes whatsoever. The essence of the programmes was that Michael Wood should film the entire production in the actual places associated with the historical events on which he was reporting. This gave the show something of the style and feel of a current affairs news programme, rather as if he was a reporter making live broadcasts from the scene.

The Times television reviewer remarked that Wood is "never at a loss for a striking analogy".[6] At a time when documentaries of this type were the exclusive preserve of academics with a solid grounding in their subject, Michael Wood's looks, speaking voice and infectious enthusiasm [7] (together with his conscious effort to come across as an everyman figure, rather than an ivory tower academic—an approach typified by his casual dress) were generally regarded as being the key to the success of the series, which made his reputation and launched him into a successful career in broadcasting. Whilst remaining an Anglo-Saxon specialist, he subsequently branched out into series on other aspects of history, often presented under similar titles, such as In Search of the Trojan War (1985), In Search of Shakespeare (2003) and In Search of Myths and Heroes (2005), returning to his Anglo-Saxon roots in 2009 with In Search of Beowulf.

The BBC decided not to release this series onto DVD, as it was felt that the passage of time since 1979 meant that today the programmes did not reflect the discoveries made in this field in the 35 years since they were originally shown. A double DVD set of the series is now scheduled for release on 2nd February 2015.[8]


In Search of Athelstan: Thursday, 19 March 1981, 8.15pm BBC1—In a corner of the ruined Abbey of Malmsbury, Wiltshire, stands a monument to a great but forgotten king. He was the founder of the first British Empire. He reigned from 925 to 939, just 14 years.

In Search of Eric Bloodaxe: Thursday, 26 March 1981, 8.15pm BBC1—Eric Bloodaxe: a name from fairy tales; an image from a childhood adventure story. He was in fact twice king in York, the last ruler of an independent Northumbria. Filmed in the autumnal colours and light of Northumberland and Cumbria, Michael Wood describes a deep-seated split between north and south, re-creating the 'thought-world' of a tenth century warlord.

In Search of Ethelred the Unready: Thursday, 2 April 1981, 8.15pm BBC1—Ethelred the Unready has the poorest reputation of any English king. His reign is synonymous with decline and moral failure. Michael Wood in his search for Ethelred sets out to discover the truth behind the legend. Was Ethelred really unready? Through one of the most remarkable pieces of English historical writing, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a story of disaster, defeat and governmental collapse unfolds. The Danish raids on England throughout Ethelred's reign led to vast payments of Danegeld, protection money, to make the Danes go away. But, despite the hand-over of thousands of silver pennies, the constant ravaging and devastation of England continued.

In Search of William the Conqueror: Thursday, 9 April 1981 8.05pm BBC2—The Norman Conquest is the most famous event in British history. It is also the most controversial. What actually happened in 1066 and why? Michael Wood concludes his personal history of the so-called Dark Ages by going in search of William the Conqueror in Normandy and England. ... As the Normans forged their hold on England by building motte and bailey castles everywhere, the Anglo-Saxon era came to an end. In the Public Record Office in London is the Domesday Book; here Michael Wood reveals his own sorrow at the passing of the chief makers of England.


Michael Wood's accompanying book based on the series, entitled In Search of The Dark Ages (BBC Books, 1981), was published to coincide with the BBC's showing of the second series, with the book release occurring on 19 March 1981, the same day on which the first programme in that series, In Search of Athelstan, was transmitted. From July to September 1981 the book made The Times list of the top-ten best selling books in hardback.[9]

Contemporary reviews of the book included comments such as:

  • Wood's carefully researched foray into early medieval Britain sifts a number of unresolved mysteries (Publishers Weekly)

The book's popularity was such that it eventually ran to four editions, published between 1981 and 1987.[10]

It has endeavoured to avoid the fate of the television series, with Michael Wood subsequently revising the book to include recent discoveries; and it remains currently available in the Revised Edition.[11]

Pilot Broadcast 1979[edit]

BBC 2 (1979):

Tue  2 Jan 1979 : In Search of Offa

First Series 1980[edit]

BBC 2 (1980):

Tue 11 March 1980 : In Search of Boadicea
Wed 12 March 1980 : In Search of Arthur
Thu 13 March 1980 : In Search of Offa (rpt)
Fri 14 March 1980 : In Search of Alfred the Great

BBC 2 Repeat (1981):

Tue  3 Nov 1981 : In Search of Boadicea
Tue 10 Nov 1981 : In Search of Arthur
Tue 17 Nov 1981 : In Search of Offa
Tue 24 Nov 1981 : In Search of Alfred the Great

BBC 1 Repeat (1984):

Mon  5 March 1984 : In Search of Boadicea
Mon 12 March 1984 : In Search of Arthur
Mon 19 March 1984 : In Search of Alfred the Great

Second Series 1981[edit]

BBC 1 (1981):

Thu 19 March 1981 : In Search of Athelstan
Thu 26 March 1981 : In Search of Eric Bloodaxe
Thu  2 April 1981 : In Search of Ethelred the Unready
Thu  9 April 1981 : In Search of William the Conqueror*
*Note: In Search of William the Conqueror was
       shown on BBC2, 8.05-9.00pm (55 mins)

BBC 2 Repeat (1981):

Tue  1 Dec 1981 : In Search of Athelstan
Tue  8 Dec 1981 : In Search of Eric Bloodaxe
Tue 15 Dec 1981 : In Search of Ethelred the Unready
Tue 22 Dec 1981 : In Search of William the Conqueror

BBC 1 Repeat (1984):

Mon 26 March 1984 : In Search of Athelstan
Mon  2 April 1984 : In Search of Eric Bloodaxe
Mon  9 April 1984 : In Search of Ethelred the Unready
Mon 30 April 1984 : In Search of William the Conqueror