The island story

30th June 1995 at 01:00
THIS SCEPTR'D ISLE. Radio 4 long wave, Monday to Friday, 10.15-10.30am. In term time throughout 1995. This ambitious project, putting the whole history of Britain into a single radio series, has now reached 1066, the one date that everybody supposedly remembers, having already disposed of the first thousand years of history in just 20 of the planned 205 episodes.

Not that these episodes have seemed particularly hurried or uninformative, with extracts from contemporary chroniclers and historians, such as Tacitus on the society of the Ancient Britons, the Venerable Bede on the attempted assassination of King Edwin and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's terse record of religious and tribal strife in pre-Conquest Britain. There are lots of good stories here, despite the easily confused names (Ethelbald, Ethelred, Egfrith, Ethelbert) and the obscurity of the political and religious conflicts to modern listeners.

The central thread for the series is provided by Sir Winston Churchill's History of the English Speaking Peoples, which in This Sceptr'd Isle is read by Paul Eddington as a counterpoint to the main narrative, written by historian Christopher Lee and read by Anna Massey.

But haven't notions of history moved on since Churchill's patriotic, four-volume work was first published? Christopher Lee explains the choice of using this particular text by telling the series' own history. He says that Radio 4 controller, Michael Green, had been looking for a major new adaptation, following in the footsteps of Paradise Lost, Pilgrim's Progress and the Bible. Christopher Lee, a former BBC defence correspondent, suggested a complete radio history of Britain, on the grounds that historical eras are rarely related to each other in broadcasting. They next discussed the possibility of producing a history series that only used source material, but Green wanted "more of a literary sweep".

This left a choice from the small field of general accounts of British history, such as Trevelyan's English Social History. Churchill's appeal, Lee suggests, is that it is both "accurate and written in a style that can be satisfactorily read aloud", perhaps because most of it was written from Churchill's dictation.

The History of the English Speaking Peoples supplies the series with what its producer Peter Atkin calls its "literary spine", contrasting in texture with the extracts from contemporary histories and with Lee's more conversational linking narration. In general, Lee has been finding Churchill very reliable, after checking against the work of specialist historians in each period to achieve a consensus on disputed facts.

Despite that, his version of the island story is likely to seem partial to those whose perspective on British history is taken from outside the centre of political power. Welsh, Scots, Irish, Lancastrians or others may well consider that parts of their history have been ignored or misrepresented.

There may also be surprise at Churchill's curt dismissal of Saint Augustine and, later, dissent at Lee's view of Thomas a Becket as a poor scholar and essentially "a thespian", ready to play any part, including that of archbishop.

But so far, the greatest number of complaints has concerned the fact that the series is only being broadcast on long wave, which suggests that it is reaching an audience.

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