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History of Britain by Simon Schama, A (2000-02)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of History of Britain by Simon Schama, A (2000-02)
BBC/History Channel, 30/09/2000-18/06/2002
15x60 min, colour
PresenterSimon Schama
ScriptSimon Schama
Production CompanyBBC
In association withHistory Channel
Executive ProducerJanice Hadlow
 Martin Davidson
Series ProducerJanet Lee

Historian Simon Schama presents a journey through 5000 years of life on these islands.

Show full synopsis

If Alistair Cooke's America (BBC, 1972) was an attempt to explain the development and character of the US to British viewers, then Simon Schama's A History of Britain (BBC, 2000) took the next logical step and tried to explain its audience to itself through the use of a simple chronological narrative. However, Schama's thesis thankfully stepped beyond the usual boundaries of dates and famous names. His joint focus on social and political history helped breathed new life into a very familiar story. At its best, A History of Britain proved that the usual emphasis on Kings and Queens fails to expose history's subtleties.

The 15-part series commenced with a conventional portrait of life in Stone Age Britain, but as it progressed, and available historical evidence increased, it started to come into its own, giving voice to the experiences of ordinary people. Schama also treats his royal subjects as human, epitomised by his description of Queen Elizabeth I: "It doesn't do to get too starry-eyed about Elizabeth. She was only too obviously made of flesh and blood."

Schama's eye for detail and sense of the dramatic also help enliven the traditional catalogue of dates, names and places. Viewers visiting Canterbury Cathedral are now just as likely to remember the description of how Thomas Beckett had the top of his head sliced open with a sword and his brains scooped out and smeared across its floor as they are to marvel at its architecture.

However, what sets A History of Britain apart from similar history series, aside from Schama's colourful narration, is its willingness to ask as many questions about historical events as it attempts to answer. The notions of statehood, community and national allegiances are all held up for examination, and he is especially scathing about the development of the British Empire.

In general, the series sides with established convention - hardly a surprise considering that it was made for a mainstream audience - but, by allowing dissenting voices and divergent interpretations a central part in its narrative, A History of Britain manages to inject new energy into its telling of familiar events and therein lies its success.

Anthony Clark

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Video Clips
Complete Episode: 'Nations' (59:00)
Extract: William Wallace (4:17)
Authored Documentary