The Master History; SIMON SCHAMA, TV's Highest-Paid Historian Is Back - with a Lavish New Series in Which He Tells the Shocking Stories Behind Europe's Greatest Art. MARY RIDDELL Meets Him and Finds out Why the Shy Young Academic Wooed His Wife with Crates of Laboratory Mice
Byline: MARY RIDDELL
Simon Schama may be the superstar of modern historians, but the image of the university don still clings to him. His dress shirt, greyish like skimmed milk, could have been through a thousand college boil washes. His jacket is rumpled. Perhaps he has never quite outgrown his past. Or maybe he read the description of himself as the Val Doonican of television history men and edited any hint of oiliness from his appearance.
Schama is the best-paid TV historian of all time after his last, [pounds sterling]3 million package deal with the BBC. In his view, he is worth it. 'It sounds ridiculously self-righteous, but it does make me feel, in a Jewish Calvinist way, that I've got to earn it.' His latest series, on art history, begins on BBC2 this month. In Power Of Art, he picks one masterpiece by eight great artists and weaves around each a story of an epoch. Some, such as Picasso's Guernica, will be familiar to many viewers. Others, such as Jacques-Louis David's Death Of Marat, are less well-known.
But all Schama has chosen carefully. His stories, like the History Of Britain series that first made him famous, have the power to beguile and charm. Whether Schama himself can boast such allure seems at first less certain, though he has calmed down since his early performances.
In particular, the arm-flailing that gave him the air of a non-swimmer drowning in the deep end of a pool has mutated into more subtle gestures.
'I'm like a chorus,' he says. 'Sort of part of the action and sort of not. I thought Derek Jacobi brilliantly conceived that in Kenneth Branagh's film of Henry V. There he was in his raincoat; sort of on the battlefield and sort of not.' This grand comparison suggests that Schama, despite his low-key manner, is sort of modest. And sort of not. Still, though he does not appear exactly overburdened with self-doubt, he does not come across as vain or snobbish, either. I imagine that, like all perfectionists, he would be tough to work with, but he is charming company. Simon Schama loves to talk. He always did.
He was brought up in north London, the younger child of a failed showman.
Arthur Osias Schama had longed to be an actor until his father, a rabbi, forbade such frivolity. Instead, Arthur became a textile buyer divulging this confidence, and we agree that I will allude to it only in passing. 'Yes, all right,' he says. His courtship of Virginia suggests a diffident suitor very different to his screen persona. 'She was such a spectacularly mind-blowing woman. She went to Oxford to do postdoctoral work, and a friend conceived a plan. He used to send me over with crates of experimental mice to give her.
He was determined that we should get together, but I was too stupid to know what was going on. I used to leave them at the porter's lodge at her laboratory. Finally, I gave her a lift back to Cambridge, and I was smitten.'
Schama got a job at Oxford soon afterwards.
His subsequent marriage to Ginny has lasted for almost 30 years. Despite its success, he hints at tempestuous moments. 'Well, all marriages are interesting stories,' he says. They live in a country house in the Hudson Valley in New York State, not far from Columbia University, where he teaches.
There were no nannies or au pairs, he says, to help them raise their children, Chloe, 23, and Gabriel, 21.
'Ginny had had such a nomadic life. Her father was a cattle rancher - the official mountain lion catcher for Nevada. He was a difficult person, and they were constantly on the road, as if they were moving with the herd. So, for her, hearth and home are incredibly important.' Schama's own father died many years ago, of cancer, and his mother, at almost 95, is in remission from the disease. 'She worked fulltime until she was 80, and found going blind and losing her independence very hard to bear. She became very angry with God, the world, everybody. …