PICK OF THE WEEK. A History of Britain BBC2 Wednesdays, 9-10pm
Simon Schama's overview of 2,000 years of British history has already come in for criticism for managing to gallop through its entire first millennium in programme one: if he could take us from the Roman Conquest to the Norman Conquest in 60 minutes, what would happen in the rest of the series? Was this history from the perspective of God, to whom a lifetime is but the twinkling of an eye? Blink, and you've missed the Tudors; go for a cup of tea and you may miss the Hundred Years' War.
The excuse that immediately came to mind in the case of the first programme was that the historian has little evidence to draw on for the period between the Romans and the Normans: didn't history more or less pass the Dark Ages by? Schama appeared in full flow on Hadrian's Wall and in the baths at Bath, there were fragmentary re-enactments, together with bits of documents, mosaics and ruins, and a lot of rolling countryside; the pattern of the series was established.
However, this is to ignore the essence of Schama's narrative. He is not playing God, but telling a succession of more or less self-contained stories, the first of which was about the persistence of Romano-British society long after the legions had left and the Angle, Saxon and Viking hordes were supposedly taking their place.
This week, his subject was Edward I, Hammer of the Scots. On October 25, he traces the aftermath of the Black Death, through the Peasants' Revolt and the Wars of the Roses, down to the rise of a rural gentry epitomised by the Paston family whose letters give a unique insight into 15th-century life. This is an enthralling, often horrifying story, and a persuasive account of historical cause and effect which would, by itself, justify the series.
* Words of Fire Channel 4 Saturday, October 28, 8pm
Chanel 4's Untold Series nears its end with the screening of Words of Fire - a documentary re-examining the Rushdie affair from the British Muslim perspective.
It talks to the original Satanic Verses book burner, and the man whose letter writing campaign initiated the battle between freedom of expression and the boundaries of blasphemy. As the programme tackles the issue from a different angle, those who were offended by the book are given space to discuss their motivations. All recall how the lack of support from Parliament or the public caused both bewilderment and dismay within the Muslim community. Looking at the events 10 years on, it is interesting to hear the views of some of the figures such as Douglas Hurd and Fay Weldon who originally supported Rushdie's right to publish.
Numbertime, BBC2, Monday, October 2311.05-11.30am
Bill, Bennie, El Nombre, plus friends, return at the start of a new series in a well-established primary maths strand, which this term sets out to exploit children's interest in money and introduces them to concepts of coinage and counting. Today, pupils learn to recognise coins up to 10 p and find out what happened to a cricketer with a broken bat at the screensaver shop.
BEST ON RADIO
Chaucer's Words, Radio 3, Saturday, October 21, 7.15-10pm
To celebrate the 600th anniversary of Chaucer's death, Radio 3 is devoting a week to the poet, starting tomorrow evening with reports from points along the Canterbury pilgrims' route.
Simultaneously, on Radio 4, Archive Hour (8.02-9pm) unearths past radio recordings of Chaucer's work and the Afternoon Play throughout the week is a series of modern tales by writers including John Mortimer which attempt to give a portrait of our society as colourful as the one Chaucer's pilgrims gave of theirs.
Robin Buss and Yolanda Brooks.