A one-man-band view of British history

Monday, October 22, 2001

LONDON -- Simon Schama apologizes. He's running late because he's "deeply" into filming the third installment of his "A History of Britain."

The first six episodes of this dramatically idiosyncratic documentary debuted last October. Seven and one-half hours covered 3100 B.C. to 1558 A.D. The second installment airs on the History Channel, Oct. 29-Nov. 1 at 8 p.m.

Deeply, madly, truly might be an appropriate way to describe this historian's passionate take on his chosen subject. What tales he has to tell of all he sees and ponders. Words stream from him in wise and witty clusters, alive with imagery.

He'd spent the previous few days filming in a French Revolution prison where he could still feel "the desperation of the ghosts" and in a naval scrap yard filled with "the debris of what Britain once had." Now he's seated in his literary agent's office in Drury Lane, just a swift raven's flight from the Tower of London.

It was fabled fortresses like that, rife with stories of doomed princes and ambitious monarchs, which first inspired Schama's love of history.

Lapped up history

Growing up in the county of Essex, adjacent to the city of London, Schama lapped up the fact and fiction of history, touring the sites, collecting cigarette cards depicting history's heroes and writing a boy's-own version of historical tales about warriors and kings.

Now a professor of art history and history at Columbia University in New York, Schama's still telling stories of politics and power, conquerers and conquered, war and peace.

The five new episodes of "A History of Britain," totaling seven hours, begin with "The Body of the Queen" (1558-1603), exploring the rivalry between the barren, brilliant Queen Elizabeth I of England and the fertile, ill-fated Queen Mary of Scotland. "The British Wars" (1603-1649), investigating Charles I's belief in the Divine Right of Kings and the civil war that resulted from that conviction, also airs Oct. 29.

The other episodes are "Revolutions" (1649-1689), spanning the seesaw from Oliver Cromwell's puritanical republic to the philosophical freedoms of the Restoration; "Britannia Incorporated" (1670-1750), the years of unprecedented economic boom; and "The Wrong Empire" (1750-1800), which explains how Britain lost America but subjugated much of the globe.

The eight-hour third installment will air sometime in 2002.

Schama is writer, narrator, on-air host and author of the companion books. His viewpoint rules. No other talking heads intrude. He dominates the screen, his descriptions at once flamboyant and succinct, related against ruins, castles, battlegrounds and cathedrals of startling beauty as he wanders the landscape of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales and journeys to the many lands influenced by British power, politics and thought.

He acknowledges it's a giant task, the scheduling not helped by Britain's "nightmare" weather.

"I have to keep pulling the ultimate undergraduate all-nighter," he said, laughing.

He shrugs off criticism that his one-man-band approach distorts the historical record. He likes to joke that historians are "all pigheaded subjectivists." He acknowledges it takes "chutzpah" to express yourself the way he does, but has been quoted as saying "if it's in the hands of one storyteller, there's a chance, really, of keeping the enchantment of history alive."

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