History Lesson

By Billen, Andrew | New Statesman (1996), October 9, 2000 | Go to article overview

History Lesson


Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)


TELEVISION

ANDREW BILLEN on an attempt to make classrooms of our homes

Fearing itself at the end of its own history, the BBC has never been more mindful of its charter's remit to educate and inform. Nor, in this year of Our Dyke, has its late departed director general's enthusiasm for new technology and marketing deserted it. There is, therefore, a clutter of off air accompaniment to BBC2's A History of Britain. You've watched the programme, now access the website: "Have fun," the Radio Times invites us, "flying around historic locations or playing interactive games, or visit the site's reading room to bone up on the latest academic thinking." Or ring the events information line (Viking re-enactments in Leicester, medieval cooking demos at Hampton Court). Or buy the video and audio cassettes. Or send off for the free cardboard timeline. Concentrate, children, and you might learn something.

The trick is to turn the audience into a remedial class without it noticing. Such a project must flatter, not patronise, its patrons. The BBC's solution has been to employ one of the world's most grown-up populist historians. Simon Schama is a brand almost as respected as the BBC. The BBC gave us Civilisation and The Ascent of Man; Schama gave us Citizens and The Embarrassment of Riches. If you are going to have a solo author for 16 hour-long films, who better than Schama? As the series executive producer Martin Davidson says: "Our feeling was it's Simon or nobody."

So let us say, at once, it is good news that the BBC is doing this series (although, in fact, it was commissioned by Michael Jackson, who now runs Channel 4), and good that it persuaded Schama to write and present it. After last week's pre-1066 preamble and the account of the Norman conquest, there is already plenty of integrity to report. For one thing, although Schama does not interview other historians, he frequently shares with us his scepticism of his sources. The defeated Caledonian general at Mons Graupius in 79AD delivered the "first great anti-imperial speech", he tells us, and quotes him on the Romans: "They make a desolation and they call it peace." In fact, Schama admits, Tacitus wrote the speech for him long afterwards. And William the Conqueror's deathbed confession was, more than likely, put into his mouth by his chronicler, Ordericus Vitalis.

Happily, this fastidiousness manages to coexist with Schama's journalistic eye for detail and contemporary comparison. In "Beginnings" (Sunday 1 October, 11.35pm, BBC1), he found a Viking graffito in an Orkney mausoleum reading "Inigerth is one horny bitch"; "Conquest" (Wednesday 4 October, 9.30pm, BBC2) ended with the image of William the Conqueror's body lying "naked, putrefying on a monastery floor", his supporters having flown from him like demagnetised iron filings. …

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