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on 24 September 2017
This is a work of total brilliance. I watched it first on tv and I knew at the time I would want to watch again and again. Scharma has become a total hero of mine. He is unashamedly and openly subjective and brings a massively creative and thoughtful analysis. Most of all, he is a rivetting and compelling storyteller. I couldn't possibly describe all that there is here, but I do urge you to see for yourself. One overwhelming theme runs throughout. Appropriately this can be loosely summed up as "What does it mean to be British?".Scharma's answer to this appears to be a loosely defined and slightly nebulous concept of freedom. The whole project for me is justified by the brilliant final episode in which he draws an improbable parallel between Churchill and Orwell, the interesting and provoking conclusion that, for all their differences, if the final conclusion of history is patriotism they would both be content. British freedom the gift to the world. Well, maybe or maybe not, but it remains one of the most beautiful and moving pieces of tv I have ever seen. One final thought, I'd love to see a similar piece on the 2 Blairs, Eric & Tony!
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on 3 July 2017
I did laugh at the critical reviews which are rightly outnumbered by the vast number of positives. I bought this DVD some years ago and have watched and re-watched it many times - I'm in the middle of another re-watch marathon now. Some of the negative comments are plain baffling - for instance complaining about a lack of visual material (such as found in Ken Burns) when, erm, very little visual recording exists of events that occurred 1,000 years ago. And Schama has entitled this "A history of Britain" and not "the history of Britain" and explicitly draws attention to this - it is his own personal summation and evaluation of nearly 4,000 years of history.
His narrative style is compelling, he is even-handed and judicious in his appraisals of events and people, and he establishes a global context for unfolding British history in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries onwards. Personally, I wish he would have taken us right through the Thatcher years and the first Gulf War - and now more than ever, I think we could do with a post-WW2 coda or sequel to try and help us understand recent British history.
My personal favourite is his gripping telling of the rise and fall of the Plantagenets (episode 3 Dynasty) and in particular the quoting of words of the dying King Henry who realises only his illegitimate children are gathering at his side - "the rest, he said with a Lear-like bitterness, are the real bastards." Schama takes in politics, architecture, literature, art, fashion, and the roll-call of kings, dates, and battles to re-tell a story I've been fascinated with since I was a schoolboy, and to make his re-telling of it a treat to listen to and watch again and again.
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on 14 August 2014
Starting with prehistory and ending up in the (near-)present, Professor Simon Schama offers his own view of the history of some soggy islands moored off the coast of Europe, their unlikely rise to greatness and their decline back into ill-accepted obscurity, and ultimately what it means to be British. While unsparing of the manifold errors and sins of the British, his overall view is positive, that these funny little islands gave the world something worthwhile in the concepts of freedom and democracy that they engendered and developed, and how, in 1940, they stood up for them even when the chips were down. It was almost as if, as Churchill felt of himself in 1940, that everything that had gone before had been a preparation for this hour. With a little(?) help from its friends, the stubborn island race prevailed, but without its lone stand, perhaps nobody would have and the present would look very different. Churchill, for all his faults and imperialist tendencies, had a great sense of Britain's long history and a clear idea of what it meant to be British, and was prepared to put his money where his mouth was - and the world was ultimately glad that he did.

Naturally there is simply no way that a short TV series can capture 2000+ years of history in all its complexity, and, as Professor Schama points out, objectivity, while worth striving for, is never realistically attainable, and will always be coloured by the personal viewpoint of the writer/presenter. Plus, of course, the story is never finished. It reminds me of Chou En-lai's famous comment when asked about the effects of the French Revolution - "It's too early to tell". Britain's story continues to be written, and the current debates on leaving the EU and Scottish independence make plain that it is never written in stone.

I found Professor Schama's history highly informative, thought-provoking and above all entertaining, a story told with clarity, wit and insight. It offers no pointers for the future, but in a way perhaps it does - given his view of the British character, it perhaps reflects a quiet confidence that the island race will muddle through, no matter what the future throws at it.
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on 23 October 2015
In his review here, Oliver W. Bedford writes: "Schama's good at ignoring major events if they don't fit in with his particular ideas of what constitutes history. His relegation of the Wars of the Roses (about three decades of bloody conflict) to a spoken footnote [sic] is really breathtaking."

Yes, Mr Bedford, Schama is "good at ignoring major events if they don't fit in with his particular ideas of what constitutes history", he's exceptionally good at it. In that, he's like most of the rest of the human race. In that respect, he is also like a very large number of historians. Even if you don't accept that generalisation, Schama freely and frequently admits that it is true for him, at least. In other words, he freely admits that he takes a very personal, subjective view of any subject that he writes or talks about.

When I was younger, I hated history, because we had a history teacher of the "old school", i.e. we had to learn a whole load of dates and battles but learnt nothing about the reasons why any event happened. I have only become interested in history in the last few years because I got drawn into it through a local history project I was working on. About 6 months ago, I read Prof E H Carr's book, "What is history?" Carr explains that a huge number of historians, both ancient and modern, have been good at ignoring major events if they don't fit in with their particular ideas of what constitutes history. So Schama certainly does not seem to be alone in taking a subjective, personal view of events.

It's probably clear that I'm something of a Schama fan, a fan of his books, at least. However, I've given this DVD set four stars instead of five because I'm not completely convinced that he is suited to this kind of presentation of his thoughts. Other reviewers have mentioned already the many shots of grassy meadows, which could be anywhere, but are actually the site of some famous battle, and the little scenes with actors in period costume charging around, enacting Vikings or Normans or Saxons or whatever. I, too, felt that these shots and these scenes just didn't work, and detracted from an otherwise excellent 14.5 hours of viewing. I also felt that this DVD set was good value for money.
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on 20 August 2013
I watched the original series on BBCtv in 2001 and was hooked and spell bound. I was never great on history at school, mainly because I couldn't remember dates to save my life, and that's all it seemed to be about. I have always been interested in history however, and Simon Schama told me the stories in a way I had never heard them before. It's as if he's speaking just to you, sharing a secret with you, saying "let me tell you what really happened, there's more to this than you might think". And with his personable style, lilting tone and varying inflexion, he draws you in so that you really want to listen. Simon has the great story telling voice, his tone and pace are relaxing and a delight to listen to. Not since Jacob Bronowski and the Ascent of Man have I felt so beguiled by a story tellers voice.

He is so succinct with his words and tone of phrase that I feel that I can't miss a word or I will miss a crucial fact. He wastes no words at all. The mood is interesting and dramatic, stories are built up to crescendoes with the twists and turns of fate told vividly; you feel yourself holding your breath waiting to see what was the fate of some poor king. For me, the most telling and unique thing about Simon Schama's delivery is that I got the sense that he wasn't talking about events that took place 500 years ago, it could have been happening last week. It felt contemporary, as though they had been in the news just last week. With modern language and every day style, with wit and a very understated jocular style at times, I revelled in the "between you, me and the gate-post" style of revealing the plots and sub-plots. I really felt sorry for those tragic characters, but I also laughed, for if in the past someone had been an idiot, Simon tells you that he was an idiot.

For me, he told it like it was. It was about real people who lived real lives, and yes these things really did happen in our country. "A History of Britain" brings it all alive and pieces together those remnants of stone and pageantry that we see left today.
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on 9 February 2018
A gift for a friend who loved it. A timeless piece Simon has a great tone in this and can be watched many times. There are facts in there that make it really interesting to watch and you never know you may learn something.
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on 2 October 2016
I am only part way through this boxed set and at Edward III. I do not quite know what viewers expect in visuals given that the photographs must be re-enactments or castles. I find that Schama''s sheer intelligence shines through along with his grasp of detail and vision of the wider picture. He leaves me enlightened and stimulated: there are plenty of straight factual (!) history books but I value a learned man's over view. There is no such thing as objective history and he marries a personal angle with accepted information.
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on 5 August 2013
I am Brazilian, so I knew very little about the History of Britain, except the obvious (Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, something about Queen Victoria). Loved the series because it is so complete and at the same time so easily understood. The scenery was beautiful and the narrator, Simon Schama, whose book Citizens I have already read, was easily understood and made himself very acessible to the lay person that knows almost nothing about his country. A very important thing for me , because I am a foreigner and do not understand very well spoken english: it has subtitles and it helped very much with the narrative. I watched the documentaries (15 episodes) almost one after another because I was hooked by the excelent narrative. A thing to ask Mr. Schama: talk a little more about World War I and II because these episodes for me were too short, but the rest was excellent. Recommended to all.
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on 11 July 2011
I really enjoyed this series, an excellent overview of the major events in British history. The obvious famous moments are here such as 1066, the English Reformation, the reign of Victoria but what I found really interesting were the less famous parts of the British story: the ancient ruins in the Northern Scottish islands and the social aspects of the 19th century seen through the eyes of ordinary people-not just the great and powerful.

Schama is both interesting and concise, he presentd the facts in a calm but interesting way without ever falling into hyperbole.

The only reason I have not given the series 5 stars is because the quality of the footage on the first disc was not always of a high quality, occasionally blotches appeared on the screen and at times the footage of Schama was fuzzy and looked much older then a decade old. Still a very good collection!
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on 26 February 2010
Of course, anything that tries to cram in so much history into 1 series is going to skimp on certain areas, but Schama picks out a superb choice of highlights, seeing life not through the eyes of royalty but also that of the ordinary person.
Very well produced and makes history come alive. His enthusiam and obvious knowledge only adds to it.

I thoroughly recommend this to a anyone, especially those with a love for history but no desire to plod through tired old history books. THIS is what a history series should be. The only comparable presenter and historian, in my experience, is Michael Wood.
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