History is back in fashion

The BBC is putting its weight behind a 16-part history series. It's a return to tradition that amounts to radicalism in today's climate
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The BBC is preparing to step back in time with its new blockbuster, A History of Britain. There an echo of the past, not only in the subject matter of the 16-parter starting later this month, but in televisual terms, too.

The BBC is preparing to step back in time with its new blockbuster, A History of Britain. There an echo of the past, not only in the subject matter of the 16-parter starting later this month, but in televisual terms, too.

For the series, which traces the place of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the world from Iron Age times to the present day and is written and presented by acclaimed academic historian and best-selling author Simon Schama, is a chronological traipse through the centuries. With Schama's single authorial voice, there is no debate, no analysis and little in the way of 21st century TV gimmickry - just straight story-telling, accompanied by high production-value filming.

It is, quite simply, in the mould of those epics which a few years ago were viewed by fashionable broadcasters as, at best, belonging to a bygone age, at worst, reactionary.

Along with costume drama, it was decided back in the mid-1990s that such "landmark series" had had their day. Strange, therefore, that it was in the midst of this thinking that then controller of BBC2, Michael Jackson, conceived the idea for A History of Britain.

Even those such as executive producer Martin Davidson - fresh, as he puts it, from the "post-modern froth" of The Late Show - had doubts when brought in at the embryonic stage of the project. "Wasn't the straight-forward approach a `bit backward looking?" he asked himself at the time.

However, he was persuaded that the time was right for a TV landmark "that did exactly what it said on the tin". Sometimes, to do something a little old-fashioned seems quite radical, explains Davidson - adding that he was amazed but thrilled when Jane Root took over as controller of BBC 2 and enthusiastically embraced the project. He had, he confesses, been worried.

Root herself says there comes a point in TV when, having decided to move on, it's time to reinvent and move back. So with landmark series.

"[ A History of Britain] is a big, brave, daring thing to do, but it's something completely wonderful in the sense that this is one man's vision," she says. "Some people will disagree with things Simon Schama says, some people will be annoyed, it won't be to every historian's perspective. But one of the things we have learnt about TV is that an individual being passionate is a wonderful thing."

In fact, it took two years to persuade Schama to come in and be passionate about his subject. He wanted to be absolutely confident that this was a project he could put his name to and that the BBC, together with co-producer the History Channel, was willing to give it the right level of support.

With a £5m budget, three years' filming and a bevy of academic historians on the production team, the reassurances obviously sufficed. Debates about the series didn't stop there, though. First, there was the question of how landmark a series this was going to be. The BBC toyed with the idea of making A History of Britain a 26-parter. It finally settled on a 16-parter, to be shown over two seasons, on the basis that this was "huge without being exhausting".

Then there were all the discussions on historical points. Members of the production team say they have lost count of the number of historical experts consulted along the way. There was an insistence that, however contentious a viewpoint Schama was propounding, it had to be backed by a mass of evidence.

And as the vast majority of the series covers the pre-archive TV material era, much of it covers pre-personal correspondence days and some even covers times before which there is reliable portrait evidence, there was inevitably the problem of illustrating and bringing to life history for the small screen. The team was determined that when historical doubt existed, there was to be no guesswork for the sake of good images.

The team used stylised reconstructions and dramatic vignettes, often with the help of historical re-enactment societies. But where there was historical uncertainty, it has ensured that it has hedged its bets by conveying the sense of an event rather than a more literal, but likely wrong, interpretation.

It also employs visual metaphors; as Edward I's rivals referred to him as a leopard (brave but also treacherous), for that king, striking leopard images are used.

The team filmed in hundreds of historical locations, not only in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, but also in India, the US, France, the Caribbean and the Low Countries. Eight hours of original music has been composed by John Harle.

The first programme, Beginnings, encompasses an incredible 4,000 years and serves, essentially, as a scene-setter, taking in the Romans, Saxons, Vikings... everything, in fact, up to that watershed date, 1066. The remaining films in the first seven-part season take the viewer up to the end of the Elizabethan era, ready for the start of the modern-age programmes to be screened next year.

Inevitably, in the pipeline are the books (two volumes), the CD-Rom (produced in conjunction with the Victoria & Albert Museum), the website and a nationwide programme of events and activities to accompany the series. Davidson believes the dawn of the 21st century is perfect timing for A History of Britain. Britons are questioning their role in the world, he says, both in the past and for the future. In addition, history is now sexy again: witness the plethora of box-office hits in recent years, such as Braveheart, Mrs Brown and Shakespeare in Love.

And, of course, the landmark is back in fashion.

'A History of Britain' begins on Saturday 30 September at 8.05pm and then continues on Wednesdays