Simon Schama, professor of art history and history at Columbia University, New York, admitted to feeling "sheepish" at the launch earlier this month of his ambitious BBC television series, A History of Britain. The author of scholarly works such as The Embarrassment of Riches (1987), on the Dutch golden age, and Citizens (1989), on the French revolution, Schama is nevertheless no British history specialist. So to prepare himself for his 16-part series, which begins next Wednesday, he says he "became an undergraduate again".
Born in London in 1945, Schama spent his early years in southeast Essex - in an aside in the first episode of A History of Britain, he describes the area he grew up in as "just a crab's scuttle away" from Bradwell on the Blackwater estuary. Both sets of (Jewish) grandparents were refugees from persecution, in Turkey and Lithuania; his father, a Dickens and Shakespeare-loving textile trader, was an East Ender active in the opposition to Oswald Mosley in the 1930s.
After attending Haberdashers' Aske's school in north London, Schama won a scholarship to Christ's College, Cambridge, where the influential historian J. H. Plumb was his tutor and where he became a fellow after being awarded a starred first. From there he went on to Brasenose College, Oxford, before crossing the Atlantic in 1980 for a professorship at Harvard University.
In 1983, Schama married the American geneticist Virginia Papaioannou. Ten years later, he gave up Harvard to follow her to Columbia University. When not working for the BBC - his Landscape and Memory was the basis for a BBC2 series in 1995 - he shares an upstate New York home with Papaioannou and their two teenage children.
Despite leaving the Boston area, Schama is still a keen follower of Red Sox baseball; other interests, according to Who's Who, include gardening and Brazilian music.