Shiny Shelf

Historians of Genius

By Mags L Halliday on 24 February 2004

The notion that ‘history is the new rock and roll’ has always struck me as ignorant. What this series does is demonstrate that there have always been historical superstars and rock and roll is the real newcomer.

The idea behind ‘Historians of Genius’ is a simple but ingenious one: if the writers of the classic history texts (Carlyle’s ‘The French Revolution’, Macaulay’s ‘The History of England’* and Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’) were alive today, what programmes would they be making? By casting good actors as the historians, actors who can give the necessary gravity and personality to the narration, the text comes back to life. By introducing the work with a contextualisation by Simon Schama we see two levels to the programme: not only does Macaulay’s history of the Monmouth rebellion tell us about the events leading up to the Battle of Sedgemoor, the Bloody Assizes and the arrival of William of Orange, but about the interests and perspectives of the mid-Victorian era which produced Macaulay’s telling of it. There is something a little poignant about his confident assertion that the events of the Glorious Revolution will always be remembered, when we live in an era when William of Orange is more likely to be remembered for his mistreatment of the Irish than for his ‘freeing’ of the English.

History, fundamentally, is about telling stories: about making narrative order out of the chaos of the past and transmitting the passion for those narratives to others. That is something Schama does as he strides manfully across windswept fields, and Starkey does in the formal Elizabethan gardens. Samuel West as Macaulay convinces, his Oxbridge tone well suited to the writer’s occasional florid turn of phrase. How good Bill Paterson and Simon Russell Beale will be as Carlyle and Gibbon will be seen in the coming weeks. Everything else about the series is the same as a modern history programme: the shots of old prints, the odd historical re-enactment by a handful of enthusiasts with pikes and the wandering about fields which look exactly like any other fields. This is the delight of it: we can judge a history written a century ago by the same standards we judge current histories. It ought to make us question why someone like Schama has become so popular in our age, just as AJP Taylor was in the authoritative 1960s and Macaulay was in the 1860s. What do the histories we produce tell us about our own age, our own obsessions, just as these tell us about the Victorians?

Just like rock and roll, styles of history fall out of fashion. The sprawling prog rock of Carlyle or Gibbon replaced by the 1980s tight-jeaned Michael Wood and the moody 1990s angst of Schama (and I really ought to point out the punk-rock garage histories of ‘The Mark Steel Lectures’, also on BBC4, at this point). This series both highlights this, and brings these histories into a modern reinterpretation. If I have one gripe about this series, it is that it is on BBC4 and not, for example, on BBC2 at 8pm.

* I’m going to have to apologise for putting in a footnote here (Shiny Shelf has edited out my academic ‘C18th’s in the past. Philistines.) but I have to comment on the Amazon link to ‘The History of England’. Not only still in print, but people who bought it also purchased Carlyle and Gibbon. Click here for a look.

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