Thanks to a press officer's slip of the pen, The Independent on Sunday is sent to interview Simon Schama not at his literary agent's offices in London's Russell Street but to a rather grander building in Russell Square. It is a side entrance to the British Museum. When, 20 embarrassing minutes later, I relate this to Schama, he roars with laughter. "That's the introduction to your piece," he giggles: "We know Simon's pretentious - but regarding himself as an antiquity!"
At 61, he is hardly an antiquity. But since his landmark BBC Television series A History of Britain, which ran between 2000 and 2002, Schama, professor of art history and history at Columbia, has become something of a national treasure, in the traditions of the corporation's cultural arbiters. When he was subsequently asked to join the commentary team for the Queen Mother's funeral, Schama's elevation to the great and the good was confirmed, with a CBE and affectionate impersonation by Dead Ringers to complete the process.
This week, however, as his new series, Simon Schama's Power of Art arrives, he is in more radical mood. The series looks at eight artists who shocked the establishment of their day - Caravaggio, Rem- brandt, Van Gogh, Bernini, David, Turner, Picasso and Rothko. In their art at least, all were radicals, some distinctly flamboyant. Does Schama feel a personal affinity for them? "Probably, probably, yeah," he says. "Are there any that I don't feel any connection to? No, you're probably right."
In conversation, Schama is equally iconoclastic - describing President George Bush as "an absolute fucking catastrophe", criticising Tony Blair over the invasion of Iraq, and censuring politicians on both sides of the Atlantic for their lack of historical awareness. He is critical of the idea of a "war on terror", and is hoping that the US will elect the African-American Senator Barack Obama as its next president.
Born in London at the end of the war, Schama studied history at Cambridge as part of a gilded generation of young scholars - including Quentin Skinner, John Brewer, Roy Porter and Lisa Jar- dine - who have since become standard-bearers for new styles and interests in cultural and intellectual history. Professor Jar-dine, now of Queen Mary, University of London, and a close friend of Schama's, says: "Many of that generation were passed over by the history establishment, and either had to work abroad or to develop new fields to find success."
In Schama's case, a frustrating period as a young Cambridge don was relieved by the discovery of freelance journalism. The Sunday Times, then in its liberal heyday, was producing a series of colour supplements, and Schama found a stimulating - and lucrative - release from the strictures of collegiate discourse, writing sparky profiles of the "makers of the 20th century". His academic outlook began to broaden. When a short period teaching history at Oxford also proved professionally frustrating, Schama accepted a job at Harvard and hasn't looked back since. His writing flowered, embracing art history, anthropology and other disciplines. His approach delighted general readers, but his delight in human stories annoyed the critical theorists in the art history establishment.
"I remember when Simon was roundly criticised by the elderly Ernst Gombrich for reintroducing narrative and person-based history, the scales fell from my eyes," Professor Jardine recalls. "I realised then that Simon represented the future."
While a string of books and cultural essays in the 1980s and 1990s established Schama's reputation in the literary and academic world, it was not until the turn of the century that he made his mark on a wider public. Janice Hadlow, then head of the BBC's history unit and now controller of BBC4, flew to New York and asked him to write and present the series that would do it. A History of Britain secured Schama not only high audience ratings and book sales, but a personal recognition for his style: the leather-coated historian who could compare Thomas a Becket with an East End barrow boy; the radical who could also tell the stories of "great" British history. …