Our review of A History Of Britain: The Complete Collection, published August 14th, 2008, is also available.
[History] [i]s our cultural bloodstream, the secret of who we are, and it tells us to let go of the past, even as we honor it, to lament what should be lamented and to celebrate what should be celebrated. And if in the end that history turns out to reveal itself as a patriot, well then I think that neither Churchill nor Orwell would have minded that very much, and as a matter of fact, neither do I.—Professor Simon Schama
Ever since I was quite young, I have always found any and all things British to be absolutely fascinating. I am an unabashed Anglophile. And why not? The heritage of Great Britain is a heritage that is shared very much by those of us living in North America, both up to the time of independence and well beyond. Here on this side of the pond we tend to forget how much of our culture and government we inherited from the mother country, and we forget the mutual influences that our countries have had on each other down through the centuries. And so, when A History of Britain: The Complete Collection showed up on my doorstep, I was thrilled. After viewing the entire series, I can tell you that my excitement was justified; this is the shortest fifteen hours I have spent on my couch. I found myself putting each successive disc into my DVD player with a sense of ever-greater anticipation. For anyone with even a passing interest in history, this miniseries is a true gem.
A History of Britain captures the essentials of over five millennia of British history, presenting it in an engaging and easily-digested format. The mastermind behind this project is Professor Simon Schama, who wrote and narrated this unique miniseries produced by the BBC in cooperation with The History Channel. Schama's academic credentials are impeccable; he has a C.V. that stretches from Cambridge and Oxford to a stint as a professor at Harvard, and to his current position at Columbia. He has published books on a number of historical subjects, and also worked as an art critic and cultural essayist for The New Yorker from 1995 to 1998.
Facts of the Case
It's all here, from the earliest Neolithic villages in the remotest parts of the British Isles, through Roman conquest and abandonment, to Viking raiders, on down the ages through religious wars and struggles for the crown and feuds between the crown and Parliament, through Elizabeth and Victoria, through Empire gained and lost, and finally to the present day.
We have all had a professor whose classes we loved to take, someone who excelled as much as a storyteller as an instructor. Simon Schama appears to be exactly that sort of professor; if I were choosing a university all over again, I might choose Columbia just to have the privilege of hearing him lecture from time to time. His style is simple and direct, engaging and conversational without ever becoming patronizing. He is as good a guide through the thickets of British history as we could hope for. What he has accomplished with this series is nothing short of amazing: he has condensed roughly 5000 years of history into fifteen hours of screen time, without it becoming a hopelessly abbreviated mess.
He does it all while avoiding the sort of revisionist, anti-establishment, overwhelmingly negative posturing that dominates university history departments these days. This is not to say that he gives the traditional schoolroom glossy picture of history; rather, he is, in the overused phrase of our day, fair and balanced. As he notes in the quote I used above for The Charge, he is willing to lament that which should be lamented, and celebrate that which should be celebrated. He does not shy away from the more unpleasant or damning episodes, but he also does not hesitate to focus on the accomplishments of the British peoples, the times and places when they did, in fact, get it right. Through it all there is a sense of quiet pride—not the drum-beating, flag-waving kind but a sense, revealed only once in a while and in a very understated way, that Schama is proud that the story of his native land is his story, too.
One of the great strengths of Schama's work is his ability to find just the right focal point for each era he discusses. Thus, Edward I and Robert the Bruce become the focal characters in the story of the growth of nationalism among the peoples of Britain, or Winston Churchill and George Orwell become the contrasting focal points of the 20th century. He discusses not just the historical nuts and bolts of who did what to whom and when, but he cuts to the heart of historical incidents and illuminates the greater themes at work, making them accessible and explaining them in a way that just about anyone can understand.
A History of Britain stretches five discs, with three hour-long episodes per disc. In addition to the three episodes, each disc contains a short biography of a couple of the notable historical figures from that era. The list of discs and episodes is as follows:
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When cramming 5000 years into fifteen hours, there are bits and pieces that are not going to get the attention that they might otherwise deserve. Some of these can be surprising; for example, the Hundred Years' War rates only a brief mention in passing. Schama does not spoon-feed or coddle his audience; he does not always explain all the minute particulars of every event he discusses. He refuses to treat his audience as though we are completely ignorant of British history. In many ways this is one of the most appealing aspects of the series; on the other hand, I felt the need at times to do some brushing up on the basics. For example, I should have gotten myself a good map of Britain so that I would be familiar with the place names that Schama rattles off, places like Essex and East Anglia and Yorkshire of which I have only the vaguest idea. Some of this difficulty could have been solved by including an interactive map or series of maps on the DVD as a special feature. This is a series that will take some commitment from a viewer to fully appreciate; A History of Britain is not easy watching material for a sleepy afternoon. Schama's lectures move quickly, and viewers will need to be alert or risk missing vital facts. Probably the only change I would have made in his style would have been the inclusion of more specific dates; at the rate he moves through history, several decades can pass by in the matter of a sentence or two, which may leave the uninitiated a bit adrift. These are minor quibbles, however, and should not be taken as any real dissatisfaction with Schama's outstanding work.
Aside from the relative dearth of special features, I have two other minor complaints about the A History of Britain DVDs. First of all, there are no subtitles provided, not even in English. This is not a major problem, since Schama's accent is by no means difficult to understand. However, as I was diligently taking notes on these DVDs, good student that I am, it would have been nice to have subtitles available for copying down certain dates and facts, rather than repeatedly needing to rewind to make sure that I had heard him correctly and written the facts down correctly.
The second problem I had was with the picture quality. There are scenes that are absolutely sharp and perfect, as good as a television program can possibly look when transferred to DVD. Then, there are scenes, usually of historic reenactments, where Schama permitted himself the stylistic touch—one of few such touches—of making the footage look grainy and worn, as though it were archival footage, or perhaps just to point out more dramatically that it is indeed different. There were varying levels of grain added to the finished product, so that some scenes look like old home movies, but others look like it is time to get out the tinfoil and coat hangars to try to improve television reception. The scenes in the second group are snowy to such a degree that it detracts from the enjoyment of what is going on, and detracts from the learning experience. Beyond the obviously intentional grain, there also appeared to be several scenes throughout the series that displayed some pronounced artifacting and digital picture noise. It is hard to pick out among all of the intentionally rough-looking scenes, and picture quality does improve considerably as the series goes on. Still, the problems that I did find, although isolated, were noticeable and quite pronounced.
This is truly a fascinating, delightful, immensely satisfying look at British history. For those of you out there trying to find a way to spend the Amazon gift certificates you received for Christmas, this would be an excellent choice. And, if after watching it you happen to find yourself whistling "Rule, Britannia" for the next couple of days, you will hardly be alone. I watched the entire series on a compressed schedule over three or four days; when it was all over, I wanted to sit down and watch it all again. That is perhaps the highest compliment I know how to pay Professor Schama and his work.
Not guilty! God save the Queen!
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• Biography of Presenter Simon Schama
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