When this authoritatively researched and brilliantly written long form documentary series was first released on DVD a few years ago, I snatched it up and spent days lost in the fascinating netherworlds of British history. Host-writer Simon Schama, the British born Columbia and Harvard University history professor, is certainly one of the most erudite and articulate guides one could have hoped for in a tour such as this, and he takes the viewer on an incredible journey spanning millennia, from the earliest Neolithic outposts in the northern climes of the British Isles to an absolutely stunning comparison of Winston Churchill to Orwell's 1984 anti-hero, Winston Smith. What's sandwiched in between is a neverending panoply of absorbing facts and factoids that will leave most viewers not only entertained but frequently shaking their heads in disbelief at some of the data whizzing by. The good news is this re-release is exactly the same as the original, with the exception of some space saving packaging--instead of each of the DVDs being housed in separate keep cases, they're in plastic trays housed in one box approximately one fourth to one half the size of the original package (and at about half the price of the original release).
The set contains 15 excellent episodes spread out over 5 discs:
Beginnings, 3100 BC-1000 AD. This episode takes us from Neolithic villages like Skara Brae (where Schama goes into some charming descriptions of stone age "furniture") to the arrival of the Romans and Vikings in invasions of the eighth century.
Conquest, Circa 1000-1087. Schama, in one of many mind-blowing revelations scattered throughout the series, shows that it took only an incredible nine hours for William the Conqueror to change history in 1066 during the Battle of Hastings.
Dynasty, Circa 1087-1216. The emerging Norman empire is shown in intense internecine warfare as the ultimate rulers are chosen. That leads to the beginnings of the English Monarchy, with three kings who are routinely portrayed inaccurately by historians: Henry II, Richard I and John.
Nations, Circa 1216-1348. Schama engages in more of a sociological analysis as he examines the "voice" of the English people, a voice that was soon expanded as Edward I made Wales, Scotland and Ireland part of the British Empire.
King Death, 1348-1500. It's perhaps strange to think of the plague as having positive societal effects, but Schama does not shy from that thesis in this sad, though riveting episode. While the Black Death killed over one million people in about 10 years, it also ushered in a massive class restructuring, removing the last remnants of feudalism, that situated Britain perfectly to assume its preeminent place in the world in the coming centuries.
Burning Convictions, Circa 1500-1558. Anglicans and Episcopalians may want to skip over this episode, which does not whitewash Henry VIII's rather duplicitous motives for creating the Church of England. Whatever his motives, the break with Catholicism ushered in a Golden Age in England, though the festering wounds that had been inflicted on Catholicism lay just beneath the surface.
The Body of the Queen, 1558-1603. A superb episode devoted to Elizabeth I chronicles her reign while also highlighting the infamous conflict she had with her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, which of course was brimming with the Catholic-Protestant debate that Henry VIII had fomented a generation before. The episode begins with one of the more disturbing images of the series: Elizabeth's coronation ring had to be filed off of her hand after her death, since her skin had grown up and around it.
The British Wars, 1603-1649. The seemingly eternal tug of war between Republican forces (read Parliament) and the divine right of Kings is explored in this episode focusing on Charles I.
Revolutions, 1649-1689. England got to see what life without a King was like under the aegis of Puritan Oliver Cromwell. Any hopes for an end to nearly a half century of Civil War were quickly dashed, as Cromwell sent troops to Scotland and Ireland. The episode wraps up with the Restoration of the Monarchy under James II.
Brittania Incorprated, Circa 1690-Circa 1750. Religious conflict continues well into the 17th century, as England prospers under William III, while the Scottish Jacobites support dethroned King James II. The real God, commerce, is shown to be the underpinning of the burgeoning English economy of the time.
The Wrong Empire, Circa 1750-Circa 1800. England's penchant for world domination is explored in this episode, with Schama taking us on a whirlwind tour of such locales as Boston and Calcutta as he shows the Brits engaging equally in exploration and exploitation as they expand their Empire to virtually every corner of the globe.
Forces of Nature, Circa 1780-Circa 1832. The great flowering of the Romantic Era is highlighted in this episode, where poets like Wordsworth were able to glean lessons from the great teachings of Nature. Schama makes an interesting point about the British "soul" by contrasting the movement in France, where it led to a bloody revolution, whereas in England it led mostly to philosophical discussions.
Victoria and Her Sisters, 1830-Circa 1910. The unbelievably long reign of Victoria is covered in some detail in this episode, which takes a sort of interesting feminist bent on it all, with Schama making the case that having such a visible and obviously effective Queen paved the way for women of all classes to assume more powerful and prominent roles throughout society at large.
Empire of Good Intentions, Circa 1830-Circa 1925. The entropy which enveloped the British Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is examined in this episode. Schama may come off as a little bit of an apologist in this outing, but he makes a cogent case that there was little malevolence in a series of poor governmental decisions that led to unrest throughout the Empire.
The Two Winstons, 20th century. Schama's analytical brilliance is put on full display in this closing episode, where he compares two famous Winstons--Churchill and 1984's Winston Smith creator George Orwell.
Overview: About the only downsides to this compelling presentation are that a lot has happened since the culmination of the final episode (Thatcherism, Terrorism, just to name a few) and the series was filmed before anamorphically enhanced television was the norm. Otherwise, you'd be hard pressed to find a more thorough and engaging history series out there, whether or not it be about our cousins across the pond.
While there's nothing horrible about this full frame presentation, I did keep wishing it had been filmed in an anamorphically enhanced version. Colors are fine, if not eye-popping, with good saturation. There is quite a bit of softness at times, especially in the outdoor footage.
The standard stereo soundtrack, which of course is mostly Schama speaking, is perfectly fine. Some evocative music is offered in each episode.
There are additional text facts on the "major players" of each episode, as well as a biography of Schama.
This is one of the finest history series to ever air on The History Channel, and you will not be disappointed by either the epic sweep or at times picayune detail that Schama goes into throughout the 15 episodes. Highly, highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet