With action, drama and whizz-bang computer animation replacing tweedy talking heads, the BBC's latest high-gloss documentary series looks like a winner, writes Yolanda Brooks
Like Walking with Dinosaurs and The Human Body, A History of Britain could be one of those BBC documentaries that wins big audiences as well as plaudits. The new series has the man who balances academia and accessibility - Simon Schama - and enough spin-offs to fill Stephen Redgrave's medal cabinet. A History of Britain isn't quite a step-by-step guide to British history from Neolithic times to the present. Anyone expecting 16 programmes charting just who did what to whom and when will be disappointed. But those who like dramatic stories with bucketloads of historical context thrown in will love every minute.
Schama doesn't cover convenient timespans of equal length; instead he looks at chunks of history, the big events, the key moments that shaped a nation. The first seven programmes cover 3100bc to 1603: from Stone Age to Roman rule; the Anglo-Saxons versus the Normans; the Norman dynasties; the nations of Britain; the Black Death to the Tudors; the Reformation; and the reign of Elizabeth I.
It is the programme's many evocative locations and recreations that will help make the series a popular secondary classroom resource. Schama seems to be constantly on the move: a Stone Age village here, a castle there, and a battlefield to follow. Students with their heads full of dates and names will get the chance to take a good look at the locations of dozens of historic sites and artefacts.
Judging by the first two programmes and edited highlights, it looks as though the producers have been drawn towards the dark side of history, with lots of dying monarchs, pestilence, executions and battle scenes. But this is no Saving Private Ryan. In the second episode - Conquest - deft cutting, sound-effects and flashes of the Bayeux tapestry are used effectively to recreate hand-to-hand battle without too much gore. With its opening sequence of swirling, aerial shots and its recurrent glimpses of crashing waves, dramatic skies and flames, A History of Britain, quickly states its intention to offer high-voltage viewing. Forget sepia tones, and banish tweedy talking heads from your mind. Instead, get ready for restless cameras and computer animation alongside scholarly wit.
But where Walking with Dinosaurs and The Human Body ratcheted up the gee-whizz facto with innovative use of computer graphics, A History of Britain fuses computer animation seamlessly into the main visual narrative. It uses computer-generated images to recreate ancient landscapes and Halley's Comet or complete the interior of an unfinished church.
This use of dynamic images works perfectly with Schama's presenting style. Professor Schama may have done his time at Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard, and he may have been awarded the Wolfson Prize for history, but he was also art critic and cultural essayist for the New Yorker magazine. Laid-back and lyrical, erudite and enthusiastic, he describes the political manoeuvrings as well as the personal ambitions that drove the momentous historical events. Most of all, he is a great storyteller. Anyone doubting his way with words should listen to his gleefully revolting description of Saint Thomas a Becket getting his brains scraped from his skull.
Schama describes A History of Britain as "a wild ride" and, judging by the first two episodes, that's no idle boast.
Just in case you miss the series or can't get enough of it, there's the companion book, complementary programmes on BBC2 and BBC Knowledge, the radio collection, the video set, the CD-Rom, the website, the essay competition, local events and even the evening class.
The current issue of BBC History magazine is running an essay competition for history students aged 14 to18. All they have to do is answer the question: "Why is the study of history important?" The winner of the ASA-level category will win pound;1,000 and a PC. There are also prizes for GCSE winners and runners-up.
Several museums will be running events and exhibitions connected to the programme and lectures and courses will also be available, details of which are on the revamped history website at www.bbc.co.ukhistory. Placing a series at the centre of a lifelong learning maze is an ambitious undertaking, but A History of Britain will breathe new life into oft-told tales and bring new relevance to the subject for non-specialists.
The first double bill of A History of Britain will be broadcast on Saturday at 8pm. Remaining programmes will be shown on BBC2 on Wednesday evenings at 9.30pm from October 4 until November 1. The second series will start in spring 2001. The CD-Rom, which features objects from the Vamp;A, is available free from the BBC History Events line on 08700 10 60 60. A History of Britain, volume 1, pound;14.99 will be in bookshops from next week.l See Artbeat, page 27