Simon Schama: My secret recipe to bring the past to life

Simon Schama brought the history of Britain to TV. Now, he is turning his focus on the US – as the nation prepares to vote. Ian Burrell reports

Monday 26 November 2007 01:00

Here is Simon Schama, leaning against a pillar and reeling off a bawdy joke about Jewish parrots then cracking gags about "blondes" for the benefit of a blonde photographer and blonde publicist. Not since Rob Newman's comedy character Emeritus Professor FJ Lewis of All Soul's, Oxford, mocked an ageing colleague, played by David Baddiel, with schoolboy taunts of "...that's your mum that is", has a respected historian been so irreverent.

And the public loves him for it. They were drawn in their millions to his genre-changing 15-part BBC series A History of Britain and to last year's Simon Schama's Power of Art, deploying his rich storytelling talents but neither straying from the documented evidence nor dumbing down. He is making a Radio 4 documentary on the gravel-voiced musician Tom Waits, he writes about politics and art for New Yorker magazine and about food for Vogue.

Schama might be a professor of history and art history at Columbia University in New York but he refuses to be a recluse in the ivory towers. He has just come from Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, where, after accepting an honorary degree, he could not resist reminding his hosts of their famous alumni, Syd Barrett and David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, and their famous line "We don't need no edu-cayshun."

But aside from the jokes, he has a serious project to attend to. Schama, who has lived for many years in New York, is working on what will surely be a controversial four-part documentary series to be broadcast on both sides of the Atlantic in the weeks immediately before next year's US presidential election. American History: The Future will examine the historical relationship of the most powerful nation on earth to such sensitive issues as war, religion, immigration and the land.

He hopes the project will coincide with a moment when America is re-assessing its national values. "I think the coming election is a genuine sea-change moment. I deeply hope it will be. I don't just mean a change in government. It's one of those rare moments when the public is exercised by a war or foreign policy issue and they really are. From truckers in Colorado to anguished professors in Pennsylvania that is true."

The series, which will be broadcast in Britain on BBC2 and in the US on the History Channel, will attempt to use moments in American history to illustrate the country's "political DNA", says Schama. "Part of the problem is that the American political process is so much in the hands of spin doctors and scandal-mongers and you never get a substantive debate. Wouldn't it be great if you could hit the pause button and give television viewers something like the mirror of time?"

So he will highlight the fact that Thomas Jefferson never wanted West Point to be a "military academy with Prussian drillmasters strutting around", as Schama puts it. "He was someone who thought war was basically not in the American bloodstream and if it was ever [prosecuted] it should be with the utmost reluctance and foreboding and there should be citizen soldiers."

The historian will also highlight the anti-militarism of Mark Twain who regarded the war in the Philippines ordered by Theodore Roosevelt's administration as "a monstrous act of opportunistic imperialism," to use Schama's paraphrase. And he will feature General Lucius Clay's role in protecting the future of Germany in Berlin in 1945.

"I don't think America remotely thinks of itself as a warrior nation," says Schama. "Two things drive it when it thinks of Iraq, one is that it's proud of making things work, like electricity. Two, it wants to be loved and be seen in the 1945 Berlin airlift way as the deliverer of freedom. It can't figure out why it's not loved and therefore wants to figure out what has happened leading to this bleak moment [in its history]."

He scorns those who portray Americans as "obese religious fanatics" because, aside from the fact that Christian preachers led the anti-slavery and Civil Rights movements, Britain has for much of its history also been a land of Christian fundamentalism. "We in our secular elegance think it's ridiculous that the Americans still feel as intensely as they do about Christianity. What we need to think is that the period we are living in now is not necessarily typical of British life. The Cromwell Interregnum was a period of almost unhinged religious passion. The same is true of the Reformation and the evangelical movement without which the slave trade would not have been abolished in the early 19th century. Britain has been as ferociously a Christian nation as America is now."

He thinks US television's portrayal of war tends towards "slightly lachrymose self-congratulation", though he "honourably exempts" Stephen Spielberg's Band of Brothers from the charge. In fact, he thinks that US television as a whole lacks a certain critical bite. "The trouble with big network television is the sense of decorum. You can't imagine Paxman or Humphrys, who are both my mates, or Spitting Image or something like that. That would be so shocking. Saturday Night Live (the NBC show) is pathetically demure compared to what we do."

He is a fan of US political satire The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and even more so of spin-off programme The Colbert Report, describing host Stephen Colbert, who masquerades as a right-wing political pundit, as "an absolute scream...the nearest you get to Sacha [Baron Cohen] when he was Ali G. He and Stewart are the saving grace. But what they don't do is the Hogarthian, nail-your-tongue-to-the-floor savagery that somehow survives in British television."

Another Anglo-American Schama project, Rough Crossings, saw him trace African-American slaves on a journey to join British forces in the War of Independence and henceforth to a harsh life of liberty first in Nova Scotia and then in Sierra Leone. The television version, shown on BBC2, is due to be shown in America on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

He acknowledges that he and David Starkey were "very lucky to catch the moment" in the late Nineties when British audiences craved history programming. "Everything was fly-on-the-wall and contemporary and there was a great yearning for storytelling and epic dimension, I don't know if that's run its course or not," he says. "We've had series on the British landscape, the coast, maybe it's inexhaustible. If there was a 24-part series on the British breakfast maybe it would be fantastic and millions of people would see the programme on 'The Kipper' and tune in again for 'Bacon and Eggs'."

And Schama might apply to present it, what with his new food column in Vogue. "The first one was on ice cream. It's not bullshit. Any idiot can do restaurant reviews but this is serious, a bit of culture, a bit of autobiography and recipes, recipes! I don't want to do restaurant reviews, I'd much rather do recipes and be scared of people saying 'Neuurr, too much egg!'," he says. "They're big essays, 3,000 words. I've just delivered one on stews. Finally Schama has a real job."

A 10-DVD "Simon Schama Collection" BBC box set, including 'History of Britain', 'Power of Art' and 'Rough Crossings' is now on sale, priced £79.99

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