Simplistic Simon Says: "Look at Me, Everyone!" A Certain Historian Needs to Learn That He Isn't Necessarily the Main Attraction

By Cooke, Rachel | New Statesman (1996), June 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Simplistic Simon Says: "Look at Me, Everyone!" A Certain Historian Needs to Learn That He Isn't Necessarily the Main Attraction


Cooke, Rachel, New Statesman (1996)


Simon Schama's John Donne

BBC2

Michael Wood on Beowulf

BBC4

In the past few days, I've developed an obsessional loathing for a man I used rather to like. Yes, I speak of Simon Schama, historian and cheese souffle-maker extraordinaire (in case you hadn't noticed, he touts his recipe for cheese souffle around as though he were Brillat-Savarin himself). How did this happen? Well, the truth is that my feelings of disdain started even before watching his film about John Donne, when I realised that the thing was called Simon Schama's John Donne (26 May, 9pm).

Of course, we are all used to double-billing by now: to the idea that no great figure--not even a genius like Donne--can do without the support of some modern-day celebrity when it comes to television. But, still: a more sickeningly proprietorial title it is hard to imagine, especially given that the film relied more on the scholarship of others than on that of old clever clogs. Next, they should just make a series called Simon Schama. He could talk cleverly about his cleverness--and maybe make his souffle live on air.

Schama's manner has long been mighty annoying. He shouts and he twitches, and even when his hands are in his pockets, they writhe and twist frantically; he looks like he is travelling with several small mammals secreted about his person. Only now he interrupts all the time, too. Sometimes, this is almost bearable. In this film, he and Fiona Shaw showily unpicked the poems together and then she declaimed them in high luvvie style. When Schama interrupted her, I was all for it because I was desperate for her to shut up. But when he kept breaking into the elegant sentences of John Carey, the world's most clever, interesting and modest scholar of English literature, I wanted to scream. The pipsqueak!

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Did Schama make Donne's poetry live? Not really. He was good on the life; but then, Donne's life is so astonishing that it would be difficult indeed to cock up the telling of it (his brother died of the plague while in prison for sheltering a Jesuit priest; soon after that, Donne converted to Protestantism, only to muck up his putative entry into the Establishment by secretly marrying the 16-year-old niece of his patron, Sir Thomas Egerton, a betrayal for which he was punished with a stint in gaol). …

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