Passion for the past

Television programmes about history used to be viewing for "old white men over 65" but thanks to Simon Schama, Britain's greatest storyteller, times are changing. Yolanda Brooks reports

Simon Schama is Britain's storyteller in chief. It's not just what he tells us about the nation's history, it's the way he tells it. Gripping and urgent with a common-touch clarity - as if he's recalling a particularly intense episode of his favourite soap opera. He mixes the epic and the intimate with a stylistic flair not expected of a professor. The New York based academic has been described as Robin Williams, with a highbrow database and our historian laureate. He is the television scholar sans tweeds and pipe, bringing history to the masses by wising up instead of dumbing down.

After a five-year production schedule that has taken him to all points in the UK, as well as to France, Ireland and India, he has just returned to TV screens for the concluding four episodes of the award-laden A History of Britain.

When the series first aired on BBC2 two years ago, Schama was already revered as a great narrative historian and author known for his work on European, and art history. BBC2 was home to the mid-market ratings trinity of cooking, gardening and DIY make-overs. Even the schedulers at the BBC weren't convinced about its audience-pulling prowess, says Schama:

"We were told by the lords of scheduling that old white men over 65 are your audience for history and we said, 'we've made these films for everybody'."

So how has a subject that could only claim a place on the edges of the television schedules suddenly become must-see TV with 4.4 million viewers?

"When we came along the famous truism was that you could only do Pharaohs and Fuehrers. Anything in between, you couldn't get people to pay attention to," says Schama. "My belief, possibly a very naive belief, is that there is an incredible need to know about our ancestry in an unsentimental, less self-congratulatory way. It is just imprinted in our culture, whatever our ancestry happens to be."

Even so, tapping into that hidden passion has proved illusive to history programme-makers who have been moving increasingly to the re-enactment genre with shows such as Edwardian County House and The Trench to keep history in the mainstream. Great storytelling, says Schama, is the key to the series' success.

"We really wanted to hook people in the sheer epic power and beauty and pain of the storytelling, and once we'd actually engaged people's imagination start to hit them with argument," he explains. "We've spent years of our lives wrestling with the issue: how do we not dumb down? How do we take really complicated debate - questions we would really love people to engage with - without losing their attention or sounding like a lecture."

Being able to spin a good historical yarn, is also the best way to get the next generation switched on to the subject he says.

"It doesn't matter how sophisticated or how politically compelling the argument you're going to deliver to students, you owe them the story. You must have the story first. The story needn't just be dates and names and places, it has got to be done with conviction and fun. All my teachers made sure we knew the story; went through the story with us in order to make crucial issues and argument count. It does call on the teacher to learn storytelling skills and those skills are not dumbing down, they are not condescending and they are not patronising."

A History of Britain BBC2, Tuesdays, May 28-June 18, 9-10pm

The series returned to our screens last Tuesday. Schama reveals what viewers can expect this time around: Victoria and Her Sisters (June 4) "We tell the story of what happens to Britain in the industrial society by looking at the experiences of women. It is entirely seen through women's eyes, from Queen Victoria down to an Edinburgh char lady who is one of the Chartist settlers in Great Dodford in the Midlands."

Empire of Good Intentions (June 11) "Episode three is about the territorial empire - especially in India. It pays proper tribute to the high ideals of some of the empire-makers, only to show how tragically they don't quite correspond to what actually happened. At the heart of the programme are the famines, both in Ireland and India. The other half looks at the great rebellions in those countries."

The Two Winstons (June 18)

"This is a kind of coda for the whole series. I wanted to ask the question: can a country have too much history for its own good? It's about the part history itself plays in shaping the national mind, and the national identity, in the 20th century. Instead of a march from Lloyd George to Tony Blair, we did it through two people, namely George Orwell (whose creation Winston is the main character in 1984) and Winston Churchill. The challenge of doing Churchill, of course, is not just to endlessly repeat yourself and show the same archive. I think we've got some fresh things to show and a fresh way to look at him."

History trail

Simon Schama will be available for a web chat at www.bbc.co.ukhistory on June 11, following transmission of the latest episode. Other highlights on the site include a profile of Churchill, which includes audio-streamed speeches. Resources for history lessons can be found at www.bbc.co.ukschools

A History of Britain III: The Fate of Empires, 1776-2001 (pound;25) will be published by BBC Books in October.

History lecture

Simon Schama will be delivering the first BBC History Lecture, entitled Television and the Trouble with History, on the digital channel BBC Four on Thursday, June 20 at 9pm.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you