Simon says

We are desired. We are wealthy. We are civilised. We are Britain. But, asks Scott Lucas, should we t

So now we have "our" History of Britain. "A passionate and epic 16-part journey marking the crucial turning points in the nation's history," gushed the voice-over woman in such a breathy tone that I feared she would hyperventilate. "This is just the beginning," she advised, and the BBC2 logo emerged like Excalibur from a watery background.

Then, after a camera sped along the surface of a lake, the voice of Simon made its entrance. "From its earliest days, Britain was always an object of desire," he assured, lowering his tenor half an octave to convey authority. Cue sunsets over hills, crashing waves, snow-covered mountains and rainbows over misty lakes, and then an aerial shot - all significant productions demand an aerial opening shot - of Skara Brae, a coastal ruin in the Orkneys. "Here, an ancient civilisation flourished," Simon made clear, as he went walk-about in the excavation.

And we all sat back relieved. Whatever the next 5,000 years, compressed into 16 hours, would bring us - wars, Black Deaths, Europeans - we are desired. We are wealthy. We are civilised.

This is A History of Britain with Simon Schama, this year's big-budget blow-out to maintain the BBC's stature as the carrier of High Knowledge. Two years ago, it delivered Ted Turner's The Cold War; last autumn, it gift-wrapped a global Millennium in ten episodes. Now it's time to come home, to let history put the Great back into Great Britain. Great, because every step of Schama's grand tour of digs and cathedrals, battlefields and museums, is filled with self- congratulation. Self-congratulation for the historian, for the corporation and, above all, the "nation".

I know I should be happy. The BBC's and Schama's commitment to "serious" documentary can be contrasted with the void on mainstream television in the United States. Significantly, the one Stateside production of note in living memory was last year's America's Century, which sort of gives you the entire historical perspective. And it is handy to have a programme that ventures beyond the tales of "boys and their weapons" and revisionist biographies that, however worthy, dominate British prime-time documentary.

However, from our opening tour of Skara Brae, I have felt uneasy, and a lot of it has to do with the presentation of Simon as Star. Schama is undoubtedly a historian of note, a scholar who successfully packaged the French revolution for a mass audience, and who has had the ambition to bring together culture, landscape, high politics and the "common man". He is clearly enthusiastic about his stated ambition to "tell these fantastic stories. They're not my stories, they belong to all of us, and we should cherish and celebrate them even when they're tinged with tragedy. They're what makes us who we are."

Here, he is omnipresent. Simon in a windcheater in front of stone stockades. Simon in fetching green jacket - just the right casual touch without being scruffy - while reclining on Hadrian's Wall. Simon checking out the Roman spa at Bath. Simon, windswept, looking out to sea. Simon casting an eye over the battlefield near Hastings.

It's a one-man show that can become a distraction. In part, this is because of the curiosity that the Historian of Britain has been working in the US for more than 20 years. So, to my ear, Schama has an accent polished by Oxbridge, but colonised by the Ivy League. The unfortunate outcome is that he is a soundalike for Lloyd Grossman. Indeed, every time Simon popped up in yet another Roman settlement, I expected to hear: "Who lives in a house like this?"

The effect is even stranger because of what can only be called the Bloke factor in the script, Schama's way of assuring us that these folks were just like us. To keep the audience thinking that the British family of AD2000 has a direct line to that of 3000BC, Simon soothes, "They had culture. They had style" and "It's not too much of a stretch to imagine gossip travelling down those alleyways after a hearty seafood supper". Iron Age brasses of horses' faces are "Eeyores resigned to a bad day in battle", and an ancient graffito is eagerly translated as, heh heh, "Inigerth is one horny bitch". This must be the only programme in which Lindsay Duncan, a star of heavyweight television drama, has been reduced to a voice-over as a wife writing to her distant soldier husband: "I send you two pairs of socks, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants."

(It should also be noted that the BBC's technical wizards play their part with the gimmicks used to distinguish "significant" documentary, especially when there's an obvious lack of archival footage. We get pans, zooms, slow motion, black-and-white, hand-held footage, Blair Witch-style, and repeated flashes of role-playing warriors. At one point, while presenting a stone figure, Simon was filmed against a dark backdrop with only his face illuminated. Confronted with the floating head, I thought not of ancient sculpture, but of the computer in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.)

Maybe this criticism is unfair, but such is the peril of the historian as celebrity. It is an intriguing quirk of British documentary that "major" productions have focused on the storyteller. There is the now hackneyed example of A J P Taylor posing as a maverick and handing out his lessons in the 1950s, but he only paved the way. There was Kenneth Clark (now better known to many as Alan's daddy) offering us Civilisation, and Michael Wood, the "thinking woman's crumpet", lending ancient history a very visual appeal. Laurence Olivier (World at War) and Kenneth Branagh (The Cold War) became honorary historians with their unseen but obvious presences. David Starkey (whose academic career was hindered, ironically, by his breakthrough on television) once closed a series on Henry VIII by riding off into the distance on a motorcycle. Still unconventional, Starkey gave Channel 4 a hit this summer, before Craig and his Big Brother housemates took over, with a Queen Elizabeth I surrounded by ghostly advisers.

Schama takes on the mantle: white, male and from the Golden Triangle of academia. True, he has been in the US for more than a few years, but he is at great pains to remind us of his Englishness. We learn of his historical baptism with the Venerable Bede in 1950s schooldays. Speaking of a monastery at Bradwell-on-Sea, he slips in that it is a "crab's scuttle" from his boyhood home on the Essex coast.

What's more, Schama goes beyond his predecessors. Whereas it was always clear with Taylor and Starkey that they were putting forward very personal views, Schama is handing down the historical tablets of stone. I wanted him to say just once, "Now, kind viewers, this is just my personal opinion", but he never disturbed the illusion of folksy authority. This is not a History of Britain with Simon Schama, but a History of Britain as revealed by Simon Schama.

In fact, it is a History of England's Britain. Schama is far too good a scholar to pursue a historical Scruton-y, in which evidence and logic are twisted to prove an essential Englishness. Instead, we have a process of evolution in which England emerges from the mingling of Roman and Anglo-Saxon cultures. In invoking the spirit of "Britain", Schama does have to make token references to the inhabitants on the fringe, but these are mere cameos in the spectacle.

So, after our visit to Skara Brae, Scotland bids farewell for the next 4,000 years, except for a quick glimpse of the word "Picts" on a map. Schama does refer to St Patrick, about whom there was "nothing remotely Irish"; but, unsure what to do other than show some rocks on the island of Arran, he quickly reverts to his nostalgia for the writings of the Venerable Bede. And Wales? Don't even ask.

Schama's defence is that he invites everyone to the party in the fourth episode, "Nations", with Robert the Bruce making his entrance and Wales playing brave victim to the man who became Edward the Hammer. Unfortunately, Schama gives the game away with the declaration: "Not for the first time, it would take the rest of Britain to teach England just how to be a nation." Having done their bit, willingly or unwillingly, for England's Britain, the guests exit stage left - that is, until Schama needs Mary, Queen of Scots, to highlight Queen Elizabeth's handiwork: "Together, at a terrible price and with so much pain, they had had a baby. It was a little thing with a big name - Magna Britannia. Great Britain."

The real catalyst for Schama's English/British nationalism, however, is Johnny Foreigner. Schama is at his most accessible when, using intonation and dramatic pauses like an apprentice at Rada, he is confiding in his viewing mates how brutal and deceitful these invaders really were. The Vikings, specialists in slavery and human sacrifice, get a milder version of the comedy catchphrase "I don't believe it", as Schama confronts those historians who dare put in a good word for the enemy. "Somehow," he almost sneers, "this vision of the Vikings as rapid-transit, long-distance commercial travellers, singing their sagas as they sailed to a new market opening, I don't think would have cut much ice with the local priests."

Even better is Schama's bold stand against William the Conqueror. He initially feigns objectivity by noting that the "English" weren't really that English - Edward the Confessor having lived most of his life in Normandy - and that King Harold was a bit of a cad, turning against his younger brother. Soon, however, we are aghast at the treachery of William and his "half-skinhead" troops. Hastings is no less than the first War of the Worlds for Simon: "Imagine the county gentry of England - priests, squires, judges - all wiped out overnight, replaced by an alien class! They speak differently, they look different, they take what they want and then rubber-stamp the decision in your court!" But hee hee hee, Schama tells us, we got our revenge: when William the fat bastard died, his body was stripped of all clothing and dignity by looters.

Amid the serious intonation of "history", these 16 hours promise to be just another pilgrimage to the shrines of national reaffirmation, a tribute not to the common man, but to England's really important people and events. Thomas a Becket dies; Magna Carta is signed; there are 100-plus years of scrapping with the French; now it's the Wars of the Roses and here come the Tudors. Schama is a big fan of Elizabeth I, going weak at the knees over her speech at Tilbury Camp in 1588: "She managed to make people feel safe instead of terrified, loved instead of just governed - and that's a rare quality in the politics of any age."

Although the second part of the series, to be broadcast next year, has not been announced, there are short odds that civil war, Victoria's empire, a couple of world wars and mighty Churchill, "who speaks an incontestable truth and does so with great directness and force", are on the roll-call.

What remains to be seen is how much attention the final episodes pay to the issues of England in Britain and Britain in Europe. It is this present, rather than the past, that propels the series. As minds twitch over whether devolution means break-up and whether this island should stand aside from the Continent, this series codes its answers in a 5,000-year vision. Sure, there were struggles between England, Scotland, Ireland and, yes, little Wales, but from that conflict came the strength of Britain. Wouldn't it be a shame to throw all that away? And whether or not Britain goes hand in hand with the European Union, let's remember: we are different; we are special.

And that's why Simon the Star is necessary. To sell this product, you need a good pitch man. And what better pitch man than one who has reminded us that we have to watch out for those revolting French, and that Europe's story is one of past glory? What better pitch man than one who, for all his years living in American ivory towers, has chosen to come home (at least for the filming of this series)?

Schama may not be an English nationalist a la Roger Scruton. Answering one questioner in an internet chat, he assured her about her origins: "You're just an ethnic fruit salad like the rest of us." He is a British nationalist inveighing against any decision to "Balkanise ourselves".

But let's be clear. This is a vision, just like Roy Porter's current book, Enlightenment, just like the ill-fated Dome, that Britain's greatness rests on an English base.

We are desired. We are wealthy. We are civilised. We are Britain.

A History of Britain is broadcast on Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC2, and is repeated on Sundays at 11.45pm on BBC1

Next Article