Friday, May 1, 2015

A review of Simon Schama’s “A History of Britain”

"That the two Kingdoms of England and Scotland shall upon the First day of May which shall be in the year One thousand seven hundred and seven and for ever after be united into one Kingdom by the name of Great Britain ... "

"Union with Scotland Act of 1706," Article I (passed by the Parliament of England, and later made official by the "Union with England Act of 1707," passed by the Parliament of Scotland)

I should preface this review, for my international readers, by saying that I am an American; but an American of mostly British descent, whose ancestors come mainly from England and Scotland. (England and Scotland today are both part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.) I identify strongly with Britain; not only because of my ancestry, but because Britons and Americans share common values such as freedom and democracy; and because we have been allies in war and peace for over two centuries; not fighting a war against each other since 1815 (the year the War of 1812 ended). Thus, I am much interested in the history of Great Britain, and thought I'd learn a little bit more about it by watching this series.

How I came across this series for the first time

I first stumbled across Simon Schama's television history of Britain after having watched "The Story of India" by the BBC - a country of great interest to the British, because of Britain's former colonization there; and wondered if there were any other good histories of entire countries made for television. I looked for histories of quite a few countries that interested me, but was only able to find additional television ones for former British Empire countries - like Britain, Canada, and my native America (in addition to the previously mentioned one about India). I think there's a reason I could only find histories for British Empire countries, which is that they tend to speak English; and so you're more likely to find documentaries in English about these countries. (I've since found a television history of Germany, for example, but that is only in German; and I imagine other countries also prefer to televise their history in their own languages.)

Where this series starts its history

Simon Schama's "A History of Britain" did not disappoint. The documentary gives as comprehensive a history as you're likely to find on television, owing to the fact that besides the first episode, the series focuses on the last 1,000 years of British history. (The first episode covers some 4,000 years before that!) There are some other British documentaries that focus on modern Britain (among them the powerful BBC series that I review here); but I prefer to get some of the older history as well, so this series seemed the perfect fit for me. The second episode focused on the Norman Conquest in 1066, showing why this date is the best remembered in British history. This seemed the right place to start the main series for me; although I did enjoy the first episode's coverage of invasions by the Romans, Vikings, and Anglo-Saxons - the ones prior to the Norman Conquest.

Norman landing in England, as depicted by Bayeux tapestry

Particular episodes in the series

There are a total of 15 episodes in this series, each about an hour; making the series some 15 hours in length. This isn't as long as "Canada: A People's History," which was 32 hours (the longest documentary I've ever watched); but you can cover a lot in 15 hours. Topics include the Black Death, the rise of Protestantism in England, the English Civil War, British imperialism, and the British experience of World War II. Since Britain is the mother country of America, much of it could be regarded as the mother history of America; and of great importance to us for this reason. It helps that Simon Schama is British, and that the network where the series first aired was the BBC (a British network). The series enjoyed great popularity in the United States as well - which is of great importance to the filmmakers, because the American market is much greater than the British market; and so the series was broadcast on the History Channel as well. The topic is of great interest to Americans as well as Britons.

Simon Schama, the series host

Comments on his coverage of the American Revolution

Of course, the series does not stop at the American Revolution; continuing on past the point where it's no longer the mother history of America; but that post-Revolution history is interesting as well, and of great importance to the world. And a word about its coverage of the American Revolution: They don't spend much time on it, as it wasn't as important an event for them as it was for us; but they do devote some time to it, because it was still an important event for them as well. In the words of Mr. Schama, it was "like a chapter from a British history book," and his coverage of the Revolution is actually surprisingly sympathetic, as British coverage of recent times often is. Even those Britons who would have preferred that America remain part of the Empire don't have much good to say about the British government of that time; because nobody likes a government that loses wars. (Case in point: Vietnam War in America.) Like Melvyn Bragg in "The Adventure of English" (about the English language), Simon Schama gives some sympathetic coverage of the American Revolution.

Olaudah Equiano

The international aspects of British history

The series discusses British colonization in other areas of the world as well - including India, a colony of great importance because of its having the second-largest population in the world today (after China). Their English-speaking population is second only to that of the United States today, showing what a tremendous influence the British Raj has had on India. Not all of that influence was good, of course; but the series does not sugar-coat the British occupation, criticizing the host's own country to a degree many other countries would not allow their citizens to do. They also discuss the Caribbean, with the historical importance of the slave trade there; quoting a book by former slave Olaudah Equiano, who I had actually read before watching this series. (He is a character in the movie "Amazing Grace", for those who've seen that movie.) The international aspects of British history are appropriately treated, and one can see the enormous influence the British Empire has had on the world; but the main bulk of the series is on Britain itself, much of it before the British Empire even existed. England and Scotland didn't join together until 1707, and so there's a lot of time (most of it, actually) in the British Isles themselves - which is excellent for Europe enthusiasts like me.

Conclusion: This series is excellent

All in all, it's an excellent series; and even despite some occasional liberal bias, it's a series that one can learn a lot from. If you're a Britain enthusiast, you might do yourself a favor and watch this series. It'll help you learn a lot about British history.

Footnote to this blog post:

The Parliament of Great Britain actually changed its country's name in 1800. They passed an act saying that "the said kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland shall, upon the first day of January which shall be in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and one, and for ever after, be united into one kingdom, by the name of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland" (Source: Union with Ireland Act of 1800).

After the southern part of Ireland became independent in the 1920's, the Parliament of the United Kingdom again changed the country's name, saying that they now controlled only Northern Ireland (rather than all of Ireland). They passed an act saying that "Parliament shall hereafter be known as and styled the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland." (Source: Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act of 1927) It also said that "In every Act passed and public document issued after the passing of this Act the expression 'United Kingdom' shall, unless the context otherwise requires, mean Great Britain and Northern Ireland." (Source: Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act of 1927) The official name of the country has been "the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" ever since.

DVD at Amazon

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Available on YouTube
(see first episode below)

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