How to Make History Badly

Far from revealing what has gone wrong with American politics, Simon Schama’s new series shows what has gone wrong with British television

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The infantile leftist frenzy which overcame the BBC after the second Iraq war has burned itself out. Its better journalists began fighting back after their colleagues presented the 7/7 attacks on London as an acceptable punishment for voting for Tony Blair. Justifying mass murder in Iraq was one thing, making excuses for the men who murder licence fee-payers was another. In any case, America looms too large in the imagination of broadcasting executives for anti-Americanism to become a permanent ideology. Reconciliation was always likely, but it has been speeded by Barack Obama, who for better and for worse, is a wealthy European’s dream candidate.

So the BBC sent Simon Schama to the US to film The American Future, a four-part series on how the dominant themes of its history are shaping it in the 21st century. As a good liberal academic, Professor Schama oozes disapproval. There is hardly a scene when he isn’t scowling or scolding. Yet you also sense that this is the BBC’s Nixon-in-China moment, when old ideological disagreements are put aside. Like an ambassador to a barbaric land, the professor hints that if Americans behave themselves, mutually profitable relations may soon be restored.

Although it is easy to pick holes in his arguments, it is always a pleasure to learn what he is thinking. However, I urge readers to renew their acquaintance with Professor Schama by buying or borrowing his book of the film (American Future, Bodley Head, £20) rather than by watching the series. Far from revealing what has gone wrong with American politics, it shows all too gruesomely what has gone wrong with British television.

I cannot overemphasise how philistine the medium has become. Media executives loathe complexity and scholarly argument. On the rare occasions they feel obliged to present either – to justify the licence fee, to give them something to boast about at dinner parties – they deal with intellectuals like a spinster confronting a sex maniac. Containment is the order of the day. The intellectual must be managed and constrained until his argument is “accessible” enough for viewers they take to be cretins to understand.

Television’s favoured tactic is to send the presenter on a “journey” – to use the current jargon. Professor Schama is one of our great historians. No one who has read him can doubt his ability to investigate and explain. However, instead of allowing him to tell us what he knows, the BBC instructs him to travel across the US and tell us what he feels.

Voyages of emotional discovery produce solipsistic journalism at the best of times. They work crashingly badly in American Future because the series is arranged thematically. In separate episodes, Professor Schama looks at the environment, religion and war. The narrative has to begin afresh each week, and the BBC should have accepted that the form it had chosen obliged it to allow him to explain his argument at length every time he began a new story. But giving the professor his head would have risked producing “boring” TV. Too many lectures and not enough scene changes. Instead of letting him elucidate, the BBC instructs him to go short on evidence and long on play acting.

The programme on the American way of war illustrates the perils of anti-intellectualism. Schama believes that America has been torn since its foundation between the principles of Thomas Jefferson, who wanted American soldiers to be citizens in uniform, and the realpolitik of Alexander Hamilton, who wanted the American army to behave like the armies of any other great power. I have my disagreements with his Manichean view – after all, as President, Jefferson organised an imperial land-grab with the Louisiana Purchase, and fought his own war on terror against the Barbary pirates. The trouble with this programme, however, is not whether its argument is right or wrong, but that the BBC gives Schama so little time to make it before packing the poor man off on another trip.

It takes him to the battlefield of Gettysburg. I think Schama wanted to argue that the Union forces began the conflict as good Jeffersonians but had to resort to brutal Hamiltonian measures to win. I say “I think” because instead of explaining himself, he gushes with all the lachrymose fervour of the late Princess of Wales.

It is raining, naturally. The heavens are appropriately dark. The camera focuses tight on to the suitably grim face of our presenter who in a jerkily cut monologue declares:

“There are some places where history just grabs you by the jugular. This is one of them. A terrible place. Gettysburg. It is just awful silence here. It’s so quiet you can hear the remorseless thunder of the guns. A landscape of hell. Twenty-seven thousand wounded. Eight thousand bodies. American against American. Absolute dead-on, horrifying slaughter. Insanely deluded ideas of chivalry. Confederate infantrymen and horses charging gun emplacements. Up there! [He points] Up there! [He points again in case we missed it]. Carnage. Limbs off. People screaming. Ridiculous military bands fifing and drumming their way in and out of the bloodshed. It’s farmland. It’s farmland! The heart of America. You walk along here, squishing the mud and you feel the bones are gonna pop up. Even the boulders feel like burial mounds.”

War may be hell, but it has rarely been as hellish as this.

There are multiple ironies in American Future, although I doubt media executives realise them. They hired Simon Schama, not only because he is a natural broadcaster but because of his reputation as a historian. This is based in no small measure on Citizens, his history of the French Revolution, in which he coolly dissects how the ham theatricality and oratorical excess of the revolutionaries led France to disaster. Each man kills the thing he loves, and when the BBC puts Schama on air it tells him to engage in the clichéd emotions and pathetic fallacies he earned his fame by denouncing.

The result is comically counter-productive. Emoting is meant to make history “accessible”, but at no point does the BBC allow Schama to gather basic information about the Battle of Gettysburg and pass it to the viewer. He doesn’t, for instance, say who won, why the victory mattered, what Pickett’s charge was and why it is still cursed in the American South. (It was an infantry assault ordered by the Confederate General Robert E. Lee against Major-General George G. Meade’s Union positions on Cemetery Ridge on 3 July, 1863, the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg. It was named after Major-General George Pickett, one of three Confederate generals who led the charge.) American Future can’t even bring itself to mention the Gettysburg Address.

Viewers will understand why Schama felt it necessary to go to Gettysburg only if they are already initiated into the history of the American Civil War. The references to “insanely deluded notions of chivalry” will make sense only if they have read elsewhere about Pickett’s charge.

The uninitiated who rely on TV for their history will learn nothing beyond the notion that battles are a bloody business, which I expect they already knew. In the name of “accessibility”, supposedly anti-elitist media executives maintain that the past must remain inaccessible. A more elitist approach to intellectual life has yet to be invented.