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A HISTORY OF BRITAIN

Review by Mark Wiechman

Writer/Producer:  Simon Schama
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  A&E
Features:  See Review
Length:  900 Minutes
Release Date:  July 29, 2008

"From its earliest days, Britain was an object of desire..."

Film ****

Yes Virginia, before the Beatles and the Spice Girls, there was Britannia, in which invasions were launched with chain mail and arrows instead of Pete Townsend’s guitar and when the British Empire began to die, the zeppelins were lighter than air and brought death and despair.   This series shows Britain in its finest and most desperate hours.

The description on the back of the individual disc packages accurately brags that this series dispenses with timelines and tiresome lineages for “a lively look at the personalities and events” that shaped Britain.  Where was this set when I had to take European history?  Breathtaking cinematography, Simon Schama’s gripping and authoritative narration, and of course, several thousand years of history which seems mysterious, exciting, and of course---it is all real.  History comes alive here briskly, like the weather in the Scottish highlands.   While it is on the same level as Ken Burns’ documentaries, Schama’s pacing is much faster, which is appropriate, since he only has 15 hours to tell thousands of years of history.  

These fifteen episodes on five discs will probably remind viewers of Cosmos or Connections more than Ken Burns’ works, partly because of the archeological aspects of the the first disc.  I also could not help having the same feeling that I had while watching The Lord of the Rings---going down into the depths of the earth into a catacomb only lit up once per year on the winter solstice, as one example in the first episode.  I feel like I am there looking for treasure, waiting for Gollum to get me.  I could see Thomas Beckett being murdered by order of his best friend, King Henry II. 

The fifteen episodes are: Beginnings, Conquest, Dynasty, Nations, King Death, Burning Convictions, The Body of the Queen, The British Wars, Revolutions, Britannia Incorporated, The Wrong Empire, Forces of Nature, Victoria and her Sisters, Empire of Good Intentions, The Two Winstons.

TRIVIA QUESTION:  The final episode is “The Two Winstons.”  The first is Winston Churchill, of course.  Who is the second?  Hint:  he never existed.

Video  ***

The footage seems to be all new for this series and many dramatic re-enactments put you right in the middle of events which would have consequences for all the world.  Footage of the beautiful and serene countrysides of Hastings and other historical locations, Schama makes it all come alive.

Audio **

Just a good stereo mix with some good background music, which is all that is really needed.  The narration is dramatic and clear throughout.

Features **

None other than biographies of major historical figures, but nothing else is really needed when you have fifteen hours of documentary!

Summary :

On the same high level as The Civil War and Connections, the history of Britain is all here in objective but lively commentary, from the ancient times through the twentieth century.

TRIVIA ANSWER:  The second Winston is the main character from British author George Orwell’s 1984.  The final episode describes how each shaped and reflected Britain’s struggle with its past and future in the 20th century.

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