Thursday, 22 July 2010

Review: A History of Britain

Review: A History of Britain

There comes along, every now and then, a documentary series which stands out as the best in its field. For Art History there is Kenneth Clark's Civilization. For anthropology there is Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man. For astronomy there is Carl Sagan's Cosmos. Others such as Alistair Cooke's America and James Burke's Connections also stand out - experts in their fields taking us down beautiful, well-paved paths. All leave us feeling better informed and sometimes slightly humbled. They are the great documentaries.

Simon Schama's History of Britain is not one of them.

Though Simon Schama's academic credentials are beyond dispute (as is the case with most television historians, they are all distinguished professors) there is something missing in this series.

Let me put it like this - a lot of the charm of the 'great documentaries' I have listed above is as much to do with the host as it has to do with the subject matter. In a way that's part of the idea - you need an expert who is able to spark an interest in the subject and inspire the viewers to study further. Or at least to think about things they hadn't really thought of before. The ideal aim is to educate and inform as broad a group as possible without having to resort to over-simplification and patronisation.

But this is precisely what Simon Schama does. The personality required to tell a story as great as the entire history of a nation ends up giving way to underwhelming, topical subjects. This is less true in the earlier episodes, in which Simon seems quite happy discussing the Kings and Queens. But when we get to what might be called the age of parliamentary democracy, the world he is describing is suddenly much more real - much closer to our own. Unfortunately, he uses this to make rather irresponsible cultural inferences, as I shall explain presently.

(It is worth noting that the series was made in three parts, from 2000 to 2002)

One need only look at some of the episode titles to see that there is a clear agenda. This does not mean to say there is anything wrong with the presenter having an opinion. James Burke's Connections was an "alternative view of change".  Kenneth Clark's Civilisation was "A Personal View". These views run through the programme.

But Schama's views seem to jump around from episode to episode, so much so that it is hard to really know whether they are his own. Take some episode titles. "The wrong empire.", "Victoria and her sisters." The latter of these two episodes is the worst of the series, not because simply because it apes to a particular theme but because the narrative is sacrificed a little in the process. The reign of Victoria was presented almost entirely through the eyes and lives of 'her sisters'. Not biological sisters, but her female contemporaries. The Victorian narrative was not ignored, but there was no real effort to show any sort of change and continuity - Victoria's 64 year reign is presented in an almost static manner. If you are making a programme about gender identity in late-nineteenth century England, fair enough. But if you're making a series about the history of Britain, it seems a little self-indulgent (or perhaps, indulging someone else) to structure an episode in this way.

Though this is one way of looking at history, I feel there is something rather lame and short-termist about it. Anyone politically aware at the turn of the millennium will remember that these were still the golden age of 'political correctness' - it was fashionable to be open-minded about other cultures, races, and alternative lifestyles generally. Whether this was a genuine fascination or not or just an institutionalised form of overbearing politeness, it is hard to be certain of. What is perhaps more certain is that it has gone out of fashion in the last year and a bit, Marcus du Sautoy's Story of Maths (which I reviewed here) being one of the later examples.

My complaint isn't that they are coming from a viewpoint I disagree with, but rather they are giving too much credence to any current viewpoint. Whatever your own opinions of how history should be presented and what aspects should be emphasised, I think we might agree that for a subject as long and weighty as A History of Britain we must try and tell as much of the story as we can without pandering too much to modern sensibilities, or trying to draw excessive parallels with the present, as Schama does rather glibly in a few of the later episodes. How can the viewer get lost in a sense of timelessness when the burden of the present is continually lumped on their backs? Hearkenings to the present day should be subtle - they should certainly not govern the content of episodes.

There were some good points too. Between cringeworthy platitudes there was quite a lot of material covered, particularly in the earlier episodes. But the greatest danger in giving various episodes 'themes' is that you omit some of the key processes which underpinned the nation's development. For instance, Industrialisation is only mentioned in the context of the squalor it produced and the romantics who opposed it. The growth of the middle class and the birth of a consumer society isn't really tapped upon. We hear hardly anything about the spectacular Georgians. Though the last episode, which covers the lives of Winston Churchill and George Orwell, is one of the best, it does not go past their lives, and so the one chance Schama has to make a real commentary about the present age he ignores: 1948-2002 is not documented.

So in the end what we get is little croutons of interest pulled out from the great historical soup. However, both with soup and with documentaries, I would rather have the whole bowlful. This, would of course, means that the texture and flavour of these croutons becomes drowned out in the rest of the dish. But at least you are left satisfied.

VERDICT: Ambitious, but ultimately patchy and uncompelling.

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