Media: History Is Back in Fashion ; the BBC Is Putting Its Weight Behind a 16-Part History Series. It's a Return to Tradition That Amounts to Radicalism in Today's Climate

By Marks, Naomi | The Independent (London, England), September 19, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Media: History Is Back in Fashion ; the BBC Is Putting Its Weight Behind a 16-Part History Series. It's a Return to Tradition That Amounts to Radicalism in Today's Climate


Marks, Naomi, The Independent (London, England)


The BBC is preparing to step back in time with its new blockbuster, A History of Britain. There an echo of the past, not only in the subject matter of the 16-parter starting later this month, but in televisual terms, too.

For the series, which traces the place of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the world from Iron Age times to the present day and is written and presented by acclaimed academic historian and best-selling author Simon Schama, is a chronological traipse through the centuries. With Schama's single authorial voice, there is no debate, no analysis and little in the way of 21st century TV gimmickry - just straight story-telling, accompanied by high production-value filming.

It is, quite simply, in the mould of those epics which a few years ago were viewed by fashionable broadcasters as, at best, belonging to a bygone age, at worst, reactionary.

Along with costume drama, it was decided back in the mid-1990s that such "landmark series" had had their day. Strange, therefore, that it was in the midst of this thinking that then controller of BBC2, Michael Jackson, conceived the idea for A History of Britain.

Even those such as executive producer Martin Davidson - fresh, as he puts it, from the "post-modern froth" of The Late Show - had doubts when brought in at the embryonic stage of the project. "Wasn't the straight- forward approach a `bit backward looking?" he asked himself at the time.

However, he was persuaded that the time was right for a TV landmark "that did exactly what it said on the tin". Sometimes, to do something a little old-fashioned seems quite radical, explains Davidson - adding that he was amazed but thrilled when Jane Root took over as controller of BBC 2 and enthusiastically embraced the project. He had, he confesses, been worried.

Root herself says there comes a point in TV when, having decided to move on, it's time to reinvent and move back. So with landmark series.

"[A History of Britain] is a big, brave, daring thing to do, but it's something completely wonderful in the sense that this is one man's vision," she says. "Some people will disagree with things Simon Schama says, some people will be annoyed, it won't be to every historian's perspective. But one of the things we have learnt about TV is that an individual being passionate is a wonderful thing."

In fact, it took two years to persuade Schama to come in and be passionate about his subject. He wanted to be absolutely confident that this was a project he could put his name to and that the BBC, together with co- producer the History Channel, was willing to give it the right level of support.

With a pounds 5m budget, three years' filming and a bevy of academic historians on the production team, the reassurances obviously sufficed. Debates about the series didn't stop there, though.

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