Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

How TV's History Men Get It Wrong

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

How TV's History Men Get It Wrong

Article excerpt


OUT of the schoolroom and on to the small screen: retreating from education, invading entertainment, history on TV is big business.

But is it good history? Or good television? To both questions, in most cases, the answer is squirmmakingly no.

Simon Schama returns to BBC2 at the end of this month with more instalments of his History of Britain. Meanwhile, David Starkey, capitalising on the good reception of Elizabeth I and The Six Wives of Henry VIII, has negotiated a [pound]2 million deal for a further series on Channel 4, making him the highest-paid performer on TV at [pound]75,000 per hour. A series on the British monarchy is expected soon.

Schama has put most bums on sofas, so his contribution ought to be exemplary. I used to read his books - daring essays, cutting-edge cultural history, lush narratives with academic integrity and popular appeal - in admiration of his genius. Now, I watch his work on television with dropped-jawed bewilderment. His ratings should make the publicists proud and the public ashamed.

He said that for television he would replace "authorised versions" of Britain's past with regionally refocused, globally conscious, culturally pluralist history. So far, he has not kept that promise. Instead, he offers heroes in Little England: high politics and high drama. Strings in Schama's Britain are pulled by individual puppeteers or torn in personality conflicts.

Vital dynamics disappear: the natural environment, impersonal forces and popular masses shrink or vanish.

His is an " island story": Churchillian history in demotic language. The rest of the world hardly gets mentioned, not even the essential European framework for under-

standing Britain's past and resolving her future. There is no regional sensitivity, but an unvariegated England. Scotland, Ireland and Wales feature mainly when enduring or resisting English conquest.

A candid, anglo-centric argument would have been interesting. The anglicisation of these islands is a thundering historical fact. Its limitations and failures are reshaping the United Kingdom today. But instead of confronting this story, Schama has dodged it.

Technically, the series bears marks of desperation. Instead of footage which visualises the past and evokes its feel, we get dim, unconvincing dramatisations; slow shots over static, feebly researched pictures; predictable, anachronistic music; contrived views of the presenter in unnamed, unexploited locations.

Schama fidgets as he delivers a script overburdened with words and narrative. He is one of our most brilliant

wordsmiths, but television is above all a picture-show and you can never exploit its potential to the full if you start with words.

Verbal pyrotechnics alternate with bog-standard professional screenwriting and embarrassing howlers: "Bang goes the gun - or, in this case, the sword. …

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