Show Hide image

Simplistic Simon says: “Look at me, everyone!”

A certain historian needs to learn that he isn’t necessarily the main attraction

In the past few days, I’ve developed an obsessional loathing for a man I used rather to like. Yes, I speak of Simon Schama, historian and cheese soufflé-maker extraordinaire (in case you hadn’t noticed, he touts his recipe for cheese soufflé around as though he were Brillat-Savarin himself).

How did this happen? Well, the truth is that my feelings of disdain started even before watching his film about John Donne, when I realised that the thing was called Simon Schama’s John Donne (BBC2, 26 May, 9pm).

Of course, we are all used to double-billing by now: to the idea that no great figure – not even a genius like Donne – can do without the support of some modern-day celebrity when it comes to television. But, still: a more sickeningly proprietorial title it is hard to imagine, especially given that the film relied more on the scholarship of others than on that of old clever clogs.

Next, they should just make a series called Simon Schama. He could talk cleverly about his cleverness – and maybe make his soufflé live on air.

Schama’s manner has long been mighty annoying. He shouts and he twitches, and even when his hands are in his pockets, they writhe and twist frantically; he looks like he is travelling with several small mammals secreted about his person. Only now he interrupts all the time, too. Sometimes, this is almost bearable. In this film, he and Fiona Shaw showily unpicked the poems together and then she declaimed them in high luvvie style.

When Schama interrupted her, I was all for it because I was desperate for her to shut up. But when he kept breaking into the elegant sentences of John Carey, the world’s most clever, interesting and modest scholar of English literature, I wanted to scream. The pipsqueak!

Did Schama make Donne’s poetry live? Not really. He was good on the life; but then, Donne’s life is so astonishing that it would be difficult indeed to cock up the telling of it (his brother died of the plague while in prison for sheltering a Jesuit priest; soon after that, Donne converted to Protestantism, only to muck up his putative entry into the Establishment by secretly marrying the 16-year-old niece of his patron, Sir Thomas Egerton, a betrayal for which he was punished with a stint in gaol).

But when it came to the words, he and Shaw expended so much effort on showing off their poetic sensibilities that you began to feel – and this is monstrous – you’d be glad never to hear another word of Donne. However, I must be fair: the real low point had nothing to do with Schama. That came when Shaw – who knows why? – recited the opening lines of “Batter My Heart” while jogging on a beach.

Let us turn, then, to another TV historian, Michael Wood (BBC4, 28 May, 9pm), and to another poet, the anonymous one who wrote Beowulf. Wood is amazing, still blond(ish) of hair and lithe of leg after all these years, still blessed with a boyish and infectious enthusiasm. You could sense his deeply felt reverence for Beowulf, and it was this that enabled him to explain the wondrous, chilling “heft” of its words – to pinch from its translator, Seamus Heaney – without ever sounding pompous or silly. Wood’s instinct is not to prove how much he knows, but to convince us that we might share his passion.

In the case of Beowulf, he did this by locating it in the context of our sense of ourselves. The poem is, he told us, uniquely British, for all that it is written in Anglo-Saxon and set in Denmark: like us, it is “ironical, self-deprecating, quite tough-minded”.

It was recited by Julian Glover, in a reconstructed mead hall built by a group of beardy-weirdy Anglo-Saxon nuts whom our kindly historian greeted with a broad but sincere smile (something tells me Schama would never have gone along with this).

“Why the Anglo-Saxons?” he asked them.

“What’s not to like?” came the beardy-weirdy reply.

They love the costumes, they love the hog roasts and, by God, they love the bit where Grendel’s mother loses her head. As Glover gave the broadswords and the beasts his best vibrato, Wood could be seen chewing on a hunk of charred meat, happy as Larry.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother