I've been teasing my editor on the Culture section for a couple of weeks now about my forthcoming review of Simon Schama's A History of Britain (BBC2). I told him that Schama and I had been lovers for a while, and that the eminent historian had a taste for sadomasochism of a particular bent: he liked to tie me up so that I resembled a tableau vivant of the past, Joan atop the faggots, or Marat stabbed in the bath. Needless to say the editor fell for my little joke, so much so that when I spoke to him a couple of days ago he alluded to it once more: "We're really looking forward to your piece," he said.
Oh my! If only everyone were as gullible as the staff of the national broadsheets, what an exciting world we'd be living in. I haven't ever had sex with Simon Schama (although the late AJP Taylor often used me as a loofah), and judging from the first two episodes of his much-trumpeted History it's difficult to imagine him pitching up on the wilder shores of love, for this is a veritable missionary position of a series, with Schama on top, firmly hammering away with the facts, grunting his way through the battles, and ejaculating the names of the kings.
Schama is a talented historian who first made a mark with his Embarrassment of Riches, a study of the golden age of the Netherlands. Since then in works such as Dead Certainties, Landscape and Memory and Rembrandt's Eye he's displayed a talent for uniting the telling detail with reconstructive imagination and broad theory, to produce a form of history-as-melange, that is more familiar to us from the works of the great French Structuralist historians - such as Braudel and Aries - than the drier, narrative peregrinations of the Brits. Which is why it's a surprise to see him fronting up such a pedestrian exercise in educational television as this. The strength - and the weakness - of his written history, is that it becomes clotted and unreadably rich, such is the quantity of allusion stirred into it. All that we get of this rich stock in Britain is a thin, metaphoric jus, drizzled across a meat-and-two- veg account of our island story, which must be familiar to anyone who has snoozed their way through GCSE lessons, let alone remained alert.
None of this is to say that Britain is bad - it has some excellent touches, and Schama, if not comely enough to get me into bed, is nonetheless an attractive expositor. In his dark shirts buttoned to the collar, and his slick, hip-length mac, he discourses like a thinking persons' Loyd Grossman (the result of decades across the pond), bringing a jaunty air to his well-worn tramp through the past. And the camera work, while relying far too much on aerial shots of the sea (yes, we know we're surrounded by it), and gusts of dry ice (yes, we know it gets foggy round here) is mostly sumptuous and atmospheric. I say mostly, but whenever anyone is being kidnapped, or running into battle, or fleeing from battle, or battling, the camera goes all wobbly and handheld. Tussocks of grass and thrashing legs loom up as if the Anglo-Saxon housecarls entered the fray toting a double-headed axe in one hand and a camcorder in the other. There's that, and there's also rather too much in the way of John Harle's incidental music, ranging from meaningless Celtic plaints, to plangent booms and fanfares.
I suppose my quarrel is with the "reconstructions" of historical events in general. The first half of the first programme didn't have any of these and was all the better for it. It was …