A discussion with Simon Schama about Historical Documentaries

Simon Schama is one of the best known presenters and producers of Historical Documentaries. His History of Britain series was groundbreaking in many ways. So too was the level of involvement that he had. Last year, as Civilisations hit the screens, I was lucky enough to have a discussion with Simon about the broadcasting element of his career. In particular we discussed the way in which the production team constructed their visual interpretation. Below is part of Simon’s response to my questions. More will be turned into a free resource at a later date.

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How did you first get involved in documentary making?

A pleasure to share experience (yes of more than 25 years of making these docs). I’ll answer your immediate questions below but feel free to ask others.  I should preface everything of course by saying that looking back to the period when I made History of Britain, it seems like a vanished golden age of possibilities – there were actually TWO departments of history docs within BBC, one headed by the brilliant Laurence Rees (who made an extraordinary series on Auschwitz); the other by Janice Hadlow, also an exceptional editorial and creative mind and a deeply knowledgeable historian in her own right. If you’ve read her wonderful book on George III
and his family you’ll know what I mean.

Changing ideas about the production of Historical Documentaries

I had featured as a talking head a lot in 1989 when Citizens came out and so mostly on programmes about the French Revolution; but was in no wise a presenter. But I also did a (notoriously long) ptc about Las Meninas for an American-produced art series called Art of the Western World in which Michael Wood was a kind of linking presenter. Michael was actually one of the few authorial film-makers at a time (In Search of Alexander etc) and did it wonderfully, at a time when the genre that had begun with KC , Bronowski and Alistair Cooke was thought to be deeply passe, and everything was fly-on-the-wall actuality. (There were deep rifts within the BBC on this – History of Britain came very close to being cancelled even after we had begun production!) .

The result of that velazquez moment though was people at White City thinking I might have the makings of a presenter. Janice was also producing the (great) Late Show – culture of all kinds – with the likes of Michael Ignatieff and Sarah Dunant as presenters and they all roped me in to do odd spots and little films (one on an exhibition at Manchester about children in art I loved and was turned around from shoot through edit in about 3 days – the genius of ultra economy). I then did two programmes on Rembrandt (with a startlingly wayward director)  and then another not very good series based on Landscape and memory – perhaps the definition of an
unfilmable book. All this before I agreed to do History of Britain.

What was the relationship between yourself, an academic historian, and the production team?

But I suppose the crucial answer to your question – and for other historians – is that you have to learn the specific ropes of television; and not assume that your book or your article or your opinions can just be scripted and turned into a film. Of course you CAN assume that – but then you relinquish all creative and editorial power to the director and producer – that’s something I never wanted to do. When I took the leap with Britain I was determined to learn everything – lighting; framing, editing, colour grading – so that I wouldn’t just be an arrogant amateur during post production (the crucial period) . So I did indeed learn all that – and of course it has a deep impact on how scripts are written or indeed all the critical decisions about what can be filmed and what can’t. I also had – for the most part – directors (especially Clare Beavan with whom I made the Angevins film, the Mary/Elizabeth film and the Two Winstons (possibly the best in the series) who once they were confident I did know what i was talking about technically, were very hospitable to me as a full collaborator – so Clare and I edited together a lot; always graded (I always do, especially in art films) and some times we even did the dub together .

Other Historians on Film

Now I’m not sure the majority of presenters go to these extremes in hands-on presence – I dont think David Starkey (who, by the way, contrary to the mythology I’ve known for years and like and admire very much) was quite that control-freakish as me. David again was one of the very few history presenters doing a lot of docs in the late 90s – and he was, like Michael Wood exceptionally kind in urging me on.

We are aiming to build a collection of posts from creators of all forms of historical interpretation. These can then be used to look at the different approaches.

Author Interview with Jeri Westerson

Author Interview with Alex Marchant

Simon wrote a response to The History of Britain in 2009. In it he addresses many issues around the relationship between history, production and audience. This is an academic response but goes a long way towards showing us what the academic criticisms of even the more serious documentaries have been. In schools this type of response is quite useful. It illustrates to pupils, particularly the older or more academic ones, that the methodology behind the construction of a historical documentary can be critiqued and that even the academics presenting will acknowledge that such film, whilst as good as they can make it, is limited by time, budget and demands from broadcasters etc.

A History of Britain: A Response. Simon Schama, American History Review Vol. 114, No. 3 (Jun., 2009), pp. 692-704

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