In the manufacture of eccentricity, nobody does it better than the British. Back when they had an empire, travel writers were a specialty, road-runners to remote precincts with peculiar habits and opinions. More recently, scholar-hosts of television series have charmed, snarled, and snobbed their vagabond way into our affections. A Kenneth Clark (on art), a Jacob Bronowski (on science), and a David Attenborough (on feathers, fur, and fins) not only told us terrific stories but also took everything personally, curling lips and stamping feet. To their cranky number add Simon Schama, who spent many hours last fall dragging British history from the neolithic Orkneys to the plays of Shakespeare, and who returns now with five more installments of A History of Britain, from Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, through the American Revolution and Clive of India.
While Schama professes history at Columbia University, he was born in London, was educated at Cambridge, used to teach at Oxford, and has a long-term deal with the BBC. His polymathic books include The Embarrassment of Riches, about Dutch culture in the age of Rembrandt; Citizens, a history of the French Revolution that blames the bloody stuff on hack writers, bad actors, and Romanticism; and Landscape and Memory, in which territorial identity and the modern nation-state derive from an abuse of nature. On television, backed up by a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk of production values – portraiture, jewelry, furniture, manuscripts, architecture, music, war, and weather – he is a remarkably engaging amalgam of Rod Serling and Lyle Lovett, in and out of a black leather jacket, slightly on the shady side of snide, performing a kind of jujitsu.
There is, of course, the Schama who relishes scholarship. (He is as fascinating here on how Elizabeth allegorized her Virgin Queenly self in peacock feathers as he was in Citizens on Masonic eyes, agate urns, pornography, and Isis.) And he loves as much to dish the dirt. (Thus we hear lots about “the theatrical self-pity” and regrettable sex life of Mary, Queen of Scots.) But most of all, he’d rather moralize. As hard as he was last fall on Claudius and William the Conqueror, he was merely warming up for what he says this time round about Oliver Cromwell (“Moses descending from the mountain, not a happy prophet … in his exterminating-angel mode”) and the Roundheads (“storm troopers of the Reformation … a Protestant Taliban”). And by the time he arrives at a far-flung empire where “profit turned, not on freedom, but on raw coercion,” he is a very tall ship with contempt in his sails.
Not that he’s perfect. You’d think someone who had already written a book deploring the French Revolution would jump at a chance to use the earlier one in England to comparison-shop among competing ideas of the Enlightenment on opposite sides of the Channel. I was brought up to believe that John Locke had been so appalled by what he saw of the “Glorious Revolution” that he more or less invented a social contract based on “latitudinarianism,” which encouraged industrialism to get an earlier start in the British Isles than it did on the Continent. Schama, although he does mention David Hume and Adam Smith, seems more interested in the bad behavior of the English aristocracy. Maybe he’s saving his ammunition for the nineteenth century.
But since Schama is the only talking head in his own mini-series, what we get is bound to be skewed. And that’s all right by me. I’m tired of a history so evenhanded that it ends up metronomic and stupefying. At least he is full of passionate convictions. When he rolls poor Mary’s severed head like a bowling ball across our optic nerve, we are reminded that the past was always personal for those who had to live there. Earlier on, he was reading runes, robbing graves, snorkeling in the sacred springs of Bath, and dog-paddling across the Channel on a dragonship with Norman skinheads. Now, while quoting John Milton and admiring Christopher Wren, he must face up to fire and plague and regicide, to the opium and slave trades.
As Joseph Conrad explained in Heart of Darkness: “The conquest of the earth, which means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion and slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look at it too much.” So Schama seems to be on the verge of agreeing in this lavish, Waspish enterprise. While we are waiting around for the final batch of episodes in 2002, we might find that, just as the last word on imperial Spain will be written by outlanders like Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez, so will the last word on the British Empire be written in its former colonies, on those darker continents, by people who aren’t the least bit Anglo, Norman, or Saxon – by V. S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Wole Soyinka, and Zadie Smith. They may indeed write that word in Shakespeare’s English, the imperial tongue, but it will be seasoned with their own blood.
How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog (October 27; 8 to 9:47 p.m.; Starz!) stars Kenneth Branagh as a playwright whose writer’s block is only compounded by a wife (Robin Wright Penn) who all of a sudden wants a baby, a mother-in-law (Lynn Redgrave) who moves into his house because of Alzheimer’s, a neighbor whose barking dog won’t let him sleep at night, and a stalker who uses his very own name. Only a little girl with a limp can lead him out of these wastelands.
The Sleeper (October 28; 8 to 10 p.m.; BBC America), adapted from a novel by Gillian White, stars Eileen Atkins on her worst behavior, even though she may be innocent of the very last murder in a case that goes back more than 60 years. With Anna Nassey and George Cole as the elderly amateur detectives who abscond from a nursing home on Christmas Day to track her down. Quite wonderful.
The Wedding Dress (October 28; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS) is a magical garment – designed by Vera Wang – that, in all its moving around, manages to resolve the romantic problems of Tyne Daly, her real-life daughter Kathryne Dora Brown, Neil Patrick Harris, Margaret Colin, and several other actors who also seem to be enjoying themselves in two warm and fuzzy hours.
A History of Britain
Monday, October 29, 9 to 11:30 p.m.; Tuesday, October 30 through Thursday, November 1, 9 to 10:30 p.m.; History Channel.