History lesson

Television - Andrew Billen on an attempt to make classrooms of our homes

Fearing itself at the end of its own history, the BBC has never been more mindful of its charter's remit to educate and inform. Nor, in this year of Our Dyke, has its late departed director general's enthusiasm for new technology and marketing deserted it. There is, therefore, a clutter of off-air accompaniment to BBC2's A History of Britain. You've watched the programme, now access the website: "Have fun," the Radio Times invites us, "flying around historic locations or playing interactive games, or visit the site's reading room to bone up on the latest academic thinking." Or ring the events information line (Viking re-enactments in Leicester, medieval cooking demos at Hampton Court). Or buy the video and audio cassettes. Or send off for the free cardboard timeline. Concentrate, children, and you might learn something.

The trick is to turn the audience into a remedial class without it noticing. Such a project must flatter, not patronise, its patrons. The BBC's solution has been to employ one of the world's most grown-up populist historians. Simon Schama is a brand almost as respected as the BBC. The BBC gave us Civilisation and The Ascent of Man; Schama gave us Citizens and The Embarrassment of Riches. If you are going to have a solo author for 16 hour-long films, who better than Schama? As the series executive producer Martin Davidson says: "Our feeling was it's Simon or nobody."

So let us say, at once, it is good news that the BBC is doing this series (although, in fact, it was commissioned by Michael Jackson, who now runs Channel 4), and good that it persuaded Schama to write and present it. After last week's pre-1066 preamble and the account of the Norman conquest, there is already plenty of integrity to report. For one thing, although Schama does not interview other historians, he frequently shares with us his scepticism of his sources. The defeated Caledonian general at Mons Graupius in 79AD delivered the "first great anti-imperial speech", he tells us, and quotes him on the Romans: "They make a desolation and they call it peace." In fact, Schama admits, Tacitus wrote the speech for him long afterwards. And William the Conqueror's deathbed confession was, more than likely, put into his mouth by his chronicler, Ordericus Vitalis.

Happily, this fastidiousness manages to coexist with Schama's journalistic eye for detail and contemporary comparison. In "Beginnings" (Sunday 1 October, 11.35pm, BBC1), he found a Viking graffito in an Orkney mausoleum reading "Inigerth is one horny bitch"; "Conquest" (Wednesday 4 October, 9.30pm, BBC2) ended with the image of William the Conqueror's body lying "naked, putrefying on a monastery floor", his supporters having flown from him like demagnetised iron filings.

Schama has a gift for empathising with those who have lived before us. Looking at the remains of a Neolithic community, he says: "It is not too much of a stretch to imagine gossip travelling down these alleyways after a hearty seafood supper." Describing Harold's march to Stamford Bridge, he called it "the ultimate high-impact hike, with the heaviest backpacks imaginable". But the cool of his language (Roman Britannicus "morphs" into Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, etc) is effective only if you ignore how much of it is cliche. Once you notice, it becomes very distracting. Romans "run the gauntlet"; a Roman hotel is "the last word in luxury"; Anglo-Saxon Britain lives in "the long shadow of Rome"; "a truckload of trouble" accompanies the Norman invasion; propaganda "works like a dream"; the victorious Normans own Britain "lock, stock and barrel". I could go on and, I fear, Schama is going to.

It is true that Citizens, his book on the French revolution, has in its second sentence a plaster elephant presenting a "sorry spectacle", but the language soon elevates itself. Before long, the Bastille elephant sinks "into boggy depression as though gradually subsiding with age and exhaustion". There are few moments of comparable verbal inspiration in Scha-ma's TV commentary, as if he has grown to agree with Boris Johnson, the editor of the Spectator, that "you know where you are with a cliche".

The hackneyed language would matter less if every choice made by the directors of the first two episodes (Martin Davidson and Liz Hartford, respectively) were not equally predictable. The music, composed by John Harle and sung by the BBC Singers, is an MOR, spooky, moody mush, and it accompanies Schama almost ceaselessly. The visuals match the commentary either with weary literalism - William orders trees to be felled to build ships: cut to falling trees and planks being nailed - or with abject woolliness: the most overdone image so far has been of clouds shot from above, rolling and lowering, covering and uncovering this great island of ours. Predictably awful are the dramatised reconstructions, veering from black-and-white, Bergmanesque accompaniments to the arrival of Christianity, to fast-cut close-ups of a dozen extras enacting the Battle of Hastings.

A History of Britain is not an embarrassment in the way Peter Jay's Road to Riches was, but nor is it a joy like Robert Hughes's Beyond the Fatal Shore. It is simply, thus far, less distinguished than one hoped. At this rate, it will find its home in classrooms, rather than make classrooms out of our homes.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 09 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Schools that teach children to lie