A History of Britain: The Complete Collection
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From the dawn of civilization to the 20th century, A HISTORY OF BRITAIN re-animates familiar tales and illuminates overlooked aspects of England's past. Written and hosted by historian Simon Schama (the bestselling author of Rembrandt's Eyes and The Embarrassment of Riches), this monumental The History Channel®/BBC co-production has been hailed by critics for its colorful--and controversial--approach, which discards timelines and tiresome lineages for a lively look at the personalities and cultures that infuse British history.
From India to Ireland, the Norman Invasion to the American Revolution, Schama spotlights the epic themes and towering figures that transformed an island "at the edge of the world" into the greatest empire on earth, examining the impact of this extraordinary heritage on the modern nation.
All 15 episodes of the landmark series are available on DVD for the first time in this extraordinary collector's set that belongs in the library of every history buff. Beginnings, Conquest, Dynasty, Nations, King Death, Burning Convictions, The Body of the Queen, The British Wars, Revolutions, Britannia Incorporated, The Wrong Empire, Forces of Nature, Victoria and her Sisters, Empire of Good Intentions, The Two Winstons.
What do you get when you combine the resources and ethos of the BBC with the literary panache of one of the world's best narrative historians? The answer is Simon Schama's History of Britain television series. In this well-written and thoughtfully crafted survey, Schama, the bestselling author of books on European cultural history such as The Embarrassment of Riches and Citizens, has managed to be both conventional and provocative. He tells the official version of Britain's story--Roman Britain, the Norman Conquest, the struggles of the Henrys and Richards, Elizabeth I, Scottish rebellions and the English Civil Wars, the American Revolution, the growth of the British Empire, Queen Victoria, the industrial age, and Winston Churchill. But while sticking to a script familiar to anyone who sat up and listened during history class, Schama brings it all alive with memorable prose and presence--Simon de Montfort's rebel parliament is described as inaugurating the "union between patriotism and insubordination"; with Henry VIII, Schama says, "you could practically smell the testosterone." Schama is also particularly enlightening on the symbolism of buildings, memorials, language, and ceremonies, and on the complex relations between England and its Celtic and Catholic neighbors. If history must have gloss, then let it be presented like this. --Miles Taylor
- Simon Schama biography/bibliography
- Biographies of key historical figures
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Both the Region 2 (UK & Europe) and Region 4 (Australia & New Zealand) versions are all in the original 1.85:1 widescreen (enhanced for widescreen TV). Only in America are we afforded the singular privilege of watching this show in a crappy Pan-&-Scan format courtesy of A&E/The History Channel.
The best buy right now would be to get the UK edition sold under the BBC's own label. Not only does it have 6 discs (1 disc of special features) compared to 5 in the American version, it is also much cheaper. You can get it through Amazon UK (at a 43% discount as of this date). Just make sure your system is able to play Region 2 discs and has native PAL capability. UK programs are recorded in PAL format rather than standard American NTSC.
Like his later film on art, Schama's works are at first sight a delight just to watch, the filming is that good, atmospheric, often grand, moody; always appropriate-- as is the accompanying music. The music just moves with the film so well-- drawn out medieval bag pipes(?), looong oboe notes of impending doom, then up and down the scale into quite frightening bits-- time to run for the hills! Snippets of songs of many eras, dances, religious music. That beautiful high-note voice in the theme. Perfect. It all adds so much thickness to the film, and entertainment. I know about Black Death, have a dozen books on it. But during the episode on it, I was aghast and on edge, although I knew very well what happened next. But the music and film work were perfect. The dark, damp hills and bare trees; the man dying alone of plague, on dirty straw in a dirty dark hut, covered with buboes, spitting blood, while a welsh actor recited a contemporary poem about the ravages of plague. Sounds melodramatic, but it honestly isn't. We go back to Schama, the anchor, and move along in the tale.
Now, the filming: the film's makers, camera work, are geniuses. There is a lovely sense of place, quite solid, of Britain, beautiful and awful, and I've been there. The actors, or reenactors, are perfect (they don't speak on camera), and an array of British stars with wonderful voices read letters, quotes, documents and supposed speeches. ( You know, like the Paston letters and stuff )
Then, there's the narration, which is quite good. No talking down, just Schama sharing his ideas, views, knowledge. A few off-key phrases, but its very simon-schama-- he's always quite genuine and down-to-earth, and of course, the history is wonderful. And I like the History he chose to tell. At some point, he and his team had to pick and choose from 1000+ years. No long in-depth episode on Henry VIII and his wives ( one of my favorite subjects, and first I was upset ), but enough information about his reign, and the right information about it, to show where we (britain) were heading. I think Schama provides the right information throughout, so that this particular story of Britain, through show and tell, flows along. It feels right. It looks and sounds gorgeous. It taught me stuff. I re-watch it all, or certain parts, often. Because its fun and wonderful. Its flaw is the length: way too short. If only it had been twice as long...
Now, I've friends who just don't like it. They dislike Schama, his personal take, the lack of in-depth constitutional info. They don't like the atmospherics of the painting-like camera scenes, and the soundtrack. I've had people say that stuff takes away from the history and ask what's wrong with Schama, he jerks, lunges, jumps about. The wrong points were high-lighted, stuff left out, etc. You might think the same. Also, although its about 'Britain', people complain that Scotland and Ireland are not given enough play. That is pretty fair, and a few more episodes would have helped.
But me, I got pulled in.
Mr. Schama misses the mark in two ways which are intertwined. My first objection is with Mr. Schama's choices of which subjects to cover and which to leave out. A couple of examples will suffice. In the coverage of the reign of Elizabeth I, one might expect some detailed coverage of the Spanish Armada and William Shakespeare, right? There is barely a mention of the Armada, and none of Shakespeare. Similarly, during the times of the American and French revolutions, and the Napoleanic wars, one might expect to hear the juicy details of the battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo. Each receives only a single sentence in the narrative with no details whatsoever of these battles which were pivital to the history of Britain (the ostensible subject of this series). Instead, Mr. Schama focuses an entire hour on English Romanticism, dedicating about a quarter of that to the tragic story of one Mary Wollstonecraft. Admittedly, I had never heard of her, and the story Mr. Schama presents of her is indeed intriguing, but I'm sure Mr. Schama himself must certainly agree that her contribution to the pageant of British history was insignificant.
Along with the failure to separate the important stories from the sidenotes, the series - to my American mind - fails to properly target the audience. The series was produced as a joint venture of the BBC and the Discovery Channel. As such, one might expect that the American audience might be considered in addition to the British. It was not. Consequently, many subjects that might be taken "as read" for those educated in British schools and living in British society will simply go over the heads of average Americans. For example, at the end of the episode covering the reign of William of Orange, a brief mention of the Battle of the Boyne is made. In his annoyingly sardonic fashion Mr. Schama tells us that points will not be awarded for telling who won, saying (rightly) that nobody did. Then as the trailing credits begin to roll, we are treated to an audio clip of the Reverend Ian Paisley spouting his usual vitriol - no doubt at one of the annual troublemaking sessions held by the loyalists at the site of this famous battle. Having lived in Britain during the height of "the troubles," and having been treated quite frequently during that time to both audio and video of Mr. Paisley's rantings, I was able to take Mr. Schama's point. Sadly though, the average American will surely be left scratching her head, wondering what the guy yelling bile into a megaphone has to do with an 18th century British ruler, and (hopefully) wondering what's missing in her education that left her unable to "get the joke."
I can't say that this series is a total loss, though. The coverage of the life and death of Thomas Becket was fascinating, as was the final episode comparing and contrasting the lives of Winston Churchill and George Orwell. The coverage of feminism during the reign of Victoria was also interesting, although Mr. Schama then failed to follow through on the lives and works of the British Sufferagettes. On these strengths, I've given the series a two-star rating, rather than the lowest.
Give this one a miss if you're looking for a well-integrated overview of British history. If you're looking for artfully entertaining vignettes that are marginally related to British history, and have $160 burning a hole in your pocket, then by all means...