Monday, 20 October 2008

Stateside Schama

It was my absolute intention to write an incisive piece about the new BBC series The American Future: A history featuring Simon Schama. God knows I tried to focus on the beautiful photography, the well researched narration, and the sheer wonderment of discovering some of the lesser known passages of the USA's past. Yet for all that, I failed miserably for one specific reason... his name? Simon Schama.

I am, for my sins, a newcomer to the work of Mr. Schama. Perilously little of his previous series - A History of Britain, Rough Crossings, Simon Schama's Power of Art - have I seen, but in the wake of other America-related programmes (no doubt scheduled because of the upcoming Presidential elections) it seemed now was as good a time as any to get well acquainted.

Unfortunately I found myself strangely distracted by the presenter during the first episode of his new series. It's probably me, and if so, I apologise. I'm not normally one to become obsessed with a person's physical presence on-screen, but in Schama's case I'll have to make an exception.

First and foremost, I had to overcome my nagging curiosity: just why did the esteemed historian look so familiar? Had I seen him before or was there some mysterious celebrity twin brother of his doing the rounds on TV at the moment? For five to ten minutes I sat there in front of my TV totally preoccupied with where I'd seen him (or someone like him) before. It was then I realised there was more than a passing resemblance between Schama and Ian McKellen.

Ten minutes gone, then, and fifty more to look forward to - all of them, presumably, spent under the strange delusion that Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings trilogy was now trying to educate me on the subject of American history.

I was then struck by the palpable sense of seriousness with which Schama delivered his dialogue. Put simply, he reminded me of one of those old men that sits anxiously by their front room window waiting to hurl vitriol at any kid that dares kick their football over his garden fence. Each line was delivered with a tangible scowl and a belligerent air of authority. I suppose it was that which made him such an arresting person on my screen, really.

There's no doubt he's a man passionate about the subject he's describing, and his credentials as someone that's studied world history go without saying. I just found him an intriguing alternative to the Michael Palins and Clive Jameses of this world who obviously present a different kind of programme but nonetheless do so with a more positive persona and a lighter touch.

It may seem I'm being a little unfair. Underlying this struggle to come to terms with Schama the Man I had great admiration for the way he described the resourcefulness of the early settlers in the American West. The tale of how farmers made use of the natural environment, its rivers and wide open spaces for personal gain and prosperity was incredibly enlightening and very interesting indeed. Putting the struggles they faced into a modern-day context, seeking the similarities with the Americans of today, was done with great skill and was typical of the quality documentary-making the BBC remains excellent at.

And that was the point I fully intended to make, except the personality - for that is what Simon Schama now is - initially got in the way of my viewing pleasure. Maybe the effect of this sullen-faced professor will wear off as I watch the other three episodes in the series, but for now I'll have to deal with the presenter as an enigma in his own right.

He is without question an historian with as many compelling facets to his character as the very subject matters he discusses, and that makes him the sort of presenter you want to watch again and again.


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