The third way to error and confusion

December 8, 2000

This is not just a book. It is part of what Simon Schama proudly calls "the project". When complete, this project will consist of two illustrated books (the second, The Fate of Empire, 1603-2001, to appear in 2001 ), a two-volume collection of audio cassettes, a 16-part television series and two boxed sets of videos. Behind Schama's scenes and text are senior BBC executives ("who together conceived the project"), nine TV producers (two of whom did a lot of the research work), eight research assistants, four editors, four readers and bands of agents and support staff.

It is not a modest project. Its aim is not simply to achieve ratings and make money, but "to restore and reanimate history as a shared public enthusiasm", to put the British past before "the biggest possible public", so we may understand who and why we are. Like the Blair project, the new history is modern - not 1950s Churchillian patriotism or 1960s Marxian labour history, but a third way. As with Blairism, it is not clear what the third way might be - something to do with change, multiplicity, heterogeneity, fluidity, contingency, complexity and such-like things. "History clings tight, but it also kicks loose."

The project has been, Schama admits, "an amazing act of faith". Was the faith justified? Can the project work? Well, if Schama and Alan Yentob (BBC director of television) think they can get for serious history and historians the public status they had when A. J. P. Taylor chatted engagingly to camera, good luck to them. I hope they succeed. But I doubt they will - and surely not with this book.

A History of Britain suffers from being part of "the project", tied to television's needs and produced by a TV team. The book is a bit more than a transcript of the programmes: it has greater length and detail. But its content has been dictated by television. It is organised around dramatic episodes and effective visuals, the events and scenes linked (if at all) thinly together. We get a series of stills rather than a story: Skara Brae, Vindolanda, the conversions, Alfred, the Bayeux tapestry, Thomas Becket, Magna Carta, Simon de Montfort, Edward I, Robert Bruce, the Black Death, the Peasants' Revolt, Richard II, the Pastons, Catholic England, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, the Edwardian Reformation, Elizabeth's virginity, Mary Queen of Scots, the Armada - well, that is it, really.

Despite the third-way slogans, it is a traditional, a Churchillian agenda: kings, queens, battles, bishops and nobles. It gets going with the Romans, after five pages on the first 3,000 years. It is a history of England: Scotland means Picts, Robert Bruce and Mary Queen of Scots, with virtually nothing in between; Wales has a sentence or two every hundred years, with Gruffydd ap Llewellyn, Rhys ap Gruffydd and Llewellyn II - but no Owain Glyndwr. The Celts get in only when they are a nuisance for the English, or when Edward I has a go at them. Now personally I think "British" history is a PC fad, pretty much a waste of time before 1707 - but why does Schama pretend? As if he has not got enough to do trying to cope with England.

The book is, Schama says, "a collective work" - to get from Skara Brae to Thomas Tresham's Lyveden New Bield, it would have to be. But this team project has a single "presenter-writer", one person who, after all the help, has to understand, write and get right, the lot. And Schama is not a historian of Britain. He knows lots about the Netherlands and France and forests, but not about Britain. He was persuaded by those BBC executives that lack of expertise was an advantage: that it would help him rise above the professional debates and interpret the detail for a wider audience. This seems to me philistine and insulting, and, as Schama concedes, "a huge gamble". Has the gamble paid off?

There is a certain freshness of approach. Schama poses the big questions bluntly, and gives some crisp answers. Was the Norman conquest "an annihilation"? Not exactly, but it was "a trauma". "Whatever happened to Catholic England?" "It ended up down a priest-hole." There are sharp, indeed pointed colloquialisms: Becket "always thought that kit mattered", and the Black Death was "a knock-out blow to a world that was already hurting". There are passing reflections on long-term issues: English loyalism ensuring that rebels do not become revolutionaries, and the perennial question, "is Europe our business?" Schama is, after all, a clever historian and an engaging writer. And the photographs are stunning, though the maps are unhelpful and uninspired. But the gamble - at least, this book's part of the gamble - has failed.

It fails for three reasons. First, there is no vision: no theme, no coherence, indeed, no story. Having rejected "endurance", "progress" and "continuity" in British history, the Schama team is short of a plot: complexity and contingency do not help them much, and nor do clinging tight or kicking loose. Escape from Churchillian triumphalism and Marxist class struggle may be welcome, but where have we escaped to? I am not sure British (or even English) history has a theme, and I certainly have no over-arching concept for it - but then I was not asked to make the programmes and write the books. Thousands of years of history may not have a theme; 400-plus pages of book sure need one - or do not write it. Schama remarks on his "often idiosyncratic vision" - if only.

Second, there is too much drama. Lacking a theme (and, dare one say, lacking expertise), Schama plays the past for its excitement: blood and guts, murders most foul, rage and fury. Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans burn and hack, slaughter and starve. In loving detail, Becket is butchered, De Montfort mutilated, Jews are drowned, queens lose heads, and we all know what happened to Edward II. Let's not have any revisionist suggestion that the Vikings were not so bad after all: they were just horrid. This is not a BBC2 version of British history, but a Hollywood version. Complicated and controversial events are retold as slick tuppenny horrors, with no time for subtlety or scholarship or alternative explanations. If there is a conspiracy theory available, Schama uses it; he even believes Retha Warnicke's account of the fall of Anne Boleyn.

Third, there are too many mistakes: far too many silly slips, loose formulations and serious blunders. Here is a selection from the last two chapters, on the Reformation and the reign of Elizabeth. There are "earls" who were really dukes, and a "duchess" who was actually a countess. Empson and Dudley were not impeached, and Wolsey was charged with praemunire not fraud. Anne Boleyn's marriage was annulled on grounds of its invalidity, not her adultery. Henry VIII's restriction of Bible-reading was in 1543, not 1546. William Body was murdered in a riot on April 5 1548, not April 6 1547, and he was not Wolsey's illegitimate son; that was William Winter. Edward VI died on July 6 1553, not April 13. Mary took power in London on August 3 1553, not in September. Hall's chronicle ends in 1547, when its author died; it does not chart the rise of Protestantism and the accession of Elizabeth in 1558. The account of liturgical change under Edward VI garbles together under 1550 the piecemeal novelties of 1549-52, and invents a rule that communion was to be received sitting. Calais was lost in 1558, not 1557. In 1570, the pope declared Elizabeth excommunicate and deposed; he did not promise heaven to any assassin. Walsingham became secretary in 1573 - not before the Revolt of the Earls in 1569 (as on page 364) or in 1572 (page 376). The parentage of Mary Stuart's husband Darnley is thoroughly (and importantly) botched, and Douglas Sheffield was Leicester's mistress, not his son. There is more.

Why are there such gaffes? Do we blame the platoon of research assistants, the expert readers who were supposed to spot "glaring errors", or an author with too big a job on his hands? How did the mistakes happen, and why were they not detected? Was it through ignorance, or indifference, or the tyranny of budgets and deadlines? It looks like a rushed job. But would the punters notice? Do the facts matter, or will quips and drama do? Why bother about the detail, if the big picture works? But the facts do matter, if only because the punters do not want to be sold a pup. Professionals can enjoy postmodernist games about the non-existence of facts, but the customers may not share the joke. After all, if we wish to explain events, we have to get them in the right order, and not have Thomas Cromwell overthrown before the Act of Six Articles was passed. If we want to understand why the attempt to divert the succession failed in 1553, we have to know that Edward VI's final illness began a few weeks before his death, not a whole year. And we will only get the meaning of Mary's seizure of power if we see it was all over in four weeks, not five months.

But is this all just sour grapes, intellectual snobbery and pedantry? Well, perhaps there is a little sourness, and many British historians feel it: perhaps one of us should have done the job. Of course, no one is an expert on all of British history, but it might help to have a feel for the whole and be an expert on some of it, if only so you do not have to work the lot up from scratch. Such a mammoth job needs plenty of help, and that is presumably where the mistakes get in and the vision gets lost. However, there is no snobbery or pedantry, I hope. History is exciting, certainly; that is what attracted many of us to it. But the excitement can be found in being there, in trying to see why it was like that - it does not have to be sought in pillage and plotting. A past without the boring bits might make watchable television, but it does not make good history. What is the point in weaning an audience from Whig-Protestant progressivism if all they get instead is a messy soap opera in costume? One bloody thing after another. And as for the facts - well, they may not speak for themselves, but they ought to be there.

Christopher Haigh is lecturer in modern history, Christ Church, Oxford.

 

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