If you've followed DVD Talk's coverage of documentaries you've probably noticed that we all seem to have a special place in our hearts for ones produced by the BBC. Whether they are documentaries about our planet, its wildlife, or cultures from around the world there's just something compelling about the way the BBC handles a documentary time and time again. They've mastered it into an art form and arguably stand out at the top of the genre. With this in mind we take a look at A History of Britain.
Chances are very good that you may have heard about this documentary series from some years ago. It originally aired on the BBC back in 2000 with fifteen hour long episodes and it has had some life on DVD and VHS as well over the years. The BBC and History Channel have joined forces once again to repackage the series for a new wave of potential viewers. The five disc set is more compact, cheaper, and definitely more attractive in the eyes of collectors. Then again, I suppose it also helps that this is still one of the most brilliant and complete documentaries on the subject of Britain that you're ever going to see.
With Simon Schama at the helm of the project, A History of Britain takes on a heady amount of knowledge (For those of you who are not familiar with the man he's a well-known professor of history at Columbia and Harvard Universities). The simple fact remains that as a writer and presenter of the show, Schama brings an air of authenticity with him. He engages you intellectually, draws you in with his speech and information, and leaves you wanting more. I wouldn't say that he brings a "dynamic" presence to the documentary but rather a well-educated one. A History of Britain quickly becomes a fifteen hour Schama lecture on the subject of British culture and its past that covers roughly three thousand years.
Everything begins in Skara Brae in Orkney where Schama takes us through Stone Age civilization and what life was like around 3100 B.C. We are given a good glimpse at how life evolved there and what their societal structure was like. Schama even goes into some detail about how weather patterns changed and drove the people out of their homes in search of food and better climate. From there the episode goes on to talk about various other components of life around this time period and moves into the subject of how Rome came to the British Isle and its barbaric people. After that episode A History of Britain goes on to discuss how in 1066 the Battle of Hastings changed the fate of Britain in a mere nine hours and ended the Anglo-Saxon rule.
The two episodes that followed focus on Britain's burgeoning noble structure in the years that followed the Norman Conquest. The monarchy was basically born during this period of time and several historically famous names are dropped all over the place. The most interesting aspect I found from these episodes was how Britain's Wales, Ireland, and Scotland were carved out under Edward.
After the talk about nobility and monarchy there's everyone's favorite topic; the plague. With nearly an entire episode dedicated to this period of time Schama goes into some lengthy detail about the wave of death that spread across Britain over the course of six years. Knowing he could talk all day about the atrocities of the Black Plague, Schama instead goes on to discuss the improvements made upon society following the disease. From societal and class structures to a revamped mentality, Britain was forever changed because of this deadly event.
Considering at this point A History of Britain is only around the year 1500 there's still quite a lot of ground to cover. As the episodes and show move forward the focalization of each subject becomes stronger. Elizabeth I's reign is covered greatly as is Charles I and beyond there the episodes lead right up to the 20th century with some discussion about Winston Churchill, the Victorian era, and Britain's involvement within India.
All in all A History of Britain is a brilliant piece of work with such a vast amount of information that simply talking about the show is a daunting task. The documentary is just about as comprehensive as you can get with regards to Britain and if you're even the slightest bit interested in the subject matter then by all means pick this set up if you haven't already. Simon Schama was the perfect voice for the show and he brings a great amount of knowledge and passion to the project. He's an accomplished and gifted man who displays his prowess through his words. I suppose the only thing I could say critiquing Schama for his work here is that he comes across as dry at times. I guess that's the professor in him and after fifteen hours of the show you're bound to glaze over at some point. Despite that this is a solid program that stands out as a classy addition to anyone's collection of documentaries.
A History of Britain contains five discs in a nice folding box with thin plastic interlocking disc holders inside. The artwork is unassuming and gets the point across and the discs are equally minimalist. It is worth mentioning that there is a goof with this release. Disc 4 contains Disc 5's episodes and 5 contains 4's. It's not a huge detraction on the part of the collection but it is a quality assurance goof that should have been caught before shipment.
Originally airing between 2000 and 2002 A History of Britain is presented on DVD with a 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio. The show looks pretty good for a BBC documentary series with some scenes that contain sharp detail, natural colors, and very little in terms of digital artifacts. There are some flaws with some bits looking softer than others, grain creeps in from time to time, and the archival footage, reenactments, and photos don't translate onto DVD quite so well. All in all there are many areas of the series that look good while others just look "okay".
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo presentation is fairly barebones. Quite honestly that's not surprising considering just about the entire show is made up of Schama talking in each episode. Some music makes its way onto the soundstage as well but the overall experience is relatively flat. This is kind of the norm for documentary series of this nature though. No subtitle tracks are included here either.
Some textual biographies of the historical figures and Simon Schama are included as bonus features for the series but they aren't very compelling. There's some addition information available with each though if you're looking for more.
A History of Britain is quite a solidly produced documentary series from the BBC. With full involvement by Professor Simon Schama the show takes on an air of authenticity and there's a ton of information compressed into the fifteen hours of runtime. Each of these episodes is engaging and before you know it you'll be on the last disc (er, fourth disc?) watching the final episode. It may be a little dry and repetitive at times but there is simply too much going for this show not to highly recommend it. This may be a reprint from a release that came out a few years ago but it's still worth the trip regardless. Definitely check this out if you are looking for a documentary or information about Britain's history.
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