Judge Chris Kulik thinks any British documentary that doesn't mention Chaucer is bloody wrong.
Our review of A History Of Britain: The Complete Collection, published January 24th, 2003, is also available.
"From its earliest days, Britain was an object of desire…"
Originally broadcast on the BBC from 2000-02, Simon Schama's A History of Britain is a meticulously researched and lucidly rewarding documentary which commits to the viewer an overview of Britain's 5000-year history. This is the second time this miniseries has been released on DVD, as Judge Erick Harper more than adequately covered the first release back in 2003. Therefore, my analysis will be limited, covering only some key aspects of this set presented by The History Channel.
There are five discs, with each episode (15 in all) running approximately one hour:
"Beginnings"—Schama begins with a description of the Neolithic era before moving onto the invasions of the Vikings.
"Conquest!"—A detailed build-up to the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest of 1066, in which William the Conqueror and Edward the Confessor go head-to-head.
"Dynasty"—An inside look at the House of Normandy, covering the rulings of William II, Henry I, Henry II, Richard the Lionheart and, finally, John Lackland. Nearly a third of this episode is devoted to the infamous conflict between Henry II and St. Thomas Becket of Canterbury.
"Nations"—The reign of Henry III is covered briefly, followed by the evil Edward the Longshanks, who sought to gain control of Scotland and Wales. However, two Scots would prove Edward's plan difficult: William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.
"King Death"—The title refers not to a monarch, but actually the Black Plague, which took a horrible toll on the country in 1348-1349. This is followed by the disastrous reign of Richard II, which lead to the Peasants Revolt of 1381.
"Burning Convictions"—The transgression of catholic England becoming a Protestant nation, with the reigns of Henry VI, VII, and (of course) VIII, all being examined. We also get to meet Catharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, the latter of whom was sent to the gallows because she could not bear a son to VIII.
"The Body of the Queen"—This episode is devoted to the reigns of two extraordinary women: Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots.
"The British Wars"—We now focus on the inevitable battle between Parliament and the monarchy, where King Charles I was brought down by the power of the people, and the Parliament became the governing force of the country…which pretty much continues to this day.
"Revolutions"—Puritan Oliver Cromwell and his parliamentary rule is fleshed out; like most leaders, he turned against his subjects only to be replaced by the resurrection of the monarchy by King James II.
"Britannia Incorporated"—After several bloody massacres, Scotland and England finally join together as trade, expansion and London shops skyrocket. Episode also covers James III, Queen Anne, and the unofficial P.M. Robert Walpole.
"The Wrong Empire"—While slavery becomes a lucrative element of the economy, Britain's expansion grows into an obsession, as they try to rule over any territory they can get their hands on…including the American colonies.
"Forces of Nature"—Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine argue over the rights of man, Mary Wollstonecraft becomes the first woman to speak out on the rights of her neglected gender, and the country gets nervous over Napoleon's actions in France. This episode concludes with two key turning points: the Parliament Reform of 1832, and the Abolishment of Slavery two years later.
"Victoria and her Sisters"—The 64-year reign of Queen Victoria is covered, with women fighting for their rights (thanks to John Stuart Mill and Anne Besant) and the improvement of the economy during the Industrial Revolution.
"Empire of Good Intentions"—After Victoria's death in 1901, voting rights began to be debated, as well as the ill-fated colonization of India. Also included are the country's involvement in World War I and the constant battles between the Irish and their landlords.
"The Two Winstons"—Fascinating final chapter to the mini-series has Schama comparing and contrasting two influential individuals: the real Winston Churchill and the fictitious Winston Smith (lead character of George Orwell's novel 1984).
Columbia University professor Simon Schama may be nothing but a great historian. Unlike Ken Burns and Will Durant, Schama takes a completely straightforward approach to the material, narrating everything in crystal clear fashion. Instead of being by-the-numbers, he effectively devotes each episode to a specific theme or person, whether it be religion, conflict, a King, or a Queen. Surprisingly, he packs what feels like an entire history book into each episode, and uses many real locations to get a glimpse of what life was like in England's past.
Some will complain about Schama sideswiping too much history or being too politically correct about the material. Indeed, why he never bothered to mention such revolutionaries as Geoffrey Chaucer (the grandfather of English literature) or Michael Collins, the Irish radical of the early 1920s, I can't say. The first episode, especially, insists on covering almost 4000 years, with the rest of the episodes covering only 1000 years. Why he didn't bother discussing the Houses of Mercia and Wessex is (again) beyond me. Still, these are minor quibbles, as this is a must-see miniseries for any student or history buff.
This set is a nicely modified version of the 2003 release. All the discs are now given their own plastic holder, rather than having five separate keep cases. Otherwise, the full frame presentation and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track are pretty much the same, as are the extras. There's a Schama biography, as well as biographies on 11 key historical figures, including Edward the Confessor, Sir Winston Churchill, and William Wallace. The picture and sound qualities are appropriate for the documentary, however the lack of subtitles is rather irritating.
While I have no major complaints about A History of Britain itself, purists might get upset when I reveal the differences between this second Region 1 version and the original Region 2 version available in the UK. First, the UK version is anamorphically enhanced (I know, it sucks), and second, there are a couple more bonus features: An interview and featurette showcasing Schama which runs an additional hour, making the total running time 960 minutes. Considering the fact this is the second release by the History Channel, I find no excuse for these differences.
Schama and his documentary are found not guilty, but The History Channel is ordered to the gallows for their exclusion of Region 2's other goodies. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• Historical Biographies
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