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A History of Britain: The Complete Collection

A handful of epic-length documentaries are on DVD, perhaps most notably Cosmos, Carl Sagan's multi-part PBS odyssey through our physical universe. Also worth the time (and you'll need it) is Ken Burns' landmark The Civil War, another PBS event that became the most-watched show in the network's history. And now, from the BBC, is A Complete History of Britain, a detailed tour of Europe's island nation and its turbulent past. Unlike Burns' Civil War, however, History of Britain has a daunting task — after all, Burns used several hours to examine just five years of American history, and his subsequent Baseball and Jazz assay little more than a century. Here, more than 2,000 years of politics, war, and culture is shoehorned into 15 hours, which inevitably has led some critics to accuse the series of "dumbing down" the material. Thankfully, the documentary has an honest-to-goodness historian at the helm: Simon Schama, who has written several books, won a few awards, and taught at such out-of-the-way establishments as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Columbia. Schama's style is not that of a polished television personality, but instead what one would expect — professorial, authoritative, and at the same time enthusiastic. In fact, Schama reminds one of Carl Sagan, whose off-the-wall, sort of loopy monologues made him so endearing to the television-watching public. Schama's not loopy, but he's unique, using a mannered delivery that can give way to dramatic emphasis. Schama also is deeply invested in this material, and it's refreshing to travel throughout Britain (and the world) with him as he visits various historical sites and explains each one's significance. The material itself is broad, spread across 15 episodes, and as is common with surveys of British history, much of it concerns the history of the monarchy, the wars that were fought over the crown, and the monarchy's later relationships with evolving bodies of government. It's the key stuff to know, and the episode concerning the Civil War and execution of Charles I ("Revolutions") is particularly moving. However, at times one wishes the scope could be a bit broader: The Reign of Elizabeth discusses the rivalry between the Tudor queen and her half-sister Mary, Queen of Scots, but we learn little about what life was like at the time for the average commoner. Still, it's a small quibble, and in some segments Schama ignores the monarchy altogether — "King Death" is a sobering look at the Black Plague and the lives it ravaged, "The Wrong Empire" examines colonial/mercantile forays into America and India, and "Forces of Nature" takes in Rousseau, Woolstencraft, and other influential thinkers of the Romantic era. One hopes the series will inspire those interested to read more about different topics in greater detail, since this isn't history as much as an introduction to history. But for those only willing to spend a couple of weeks with the set, it remains informative, entertaining television that's always a pleasure to absorb. BBC Video's DVD release of A History of Britain: The Complete Collection offers pristine full-frame transfers (1.33:1) of the original video sources, with audio in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. Each disc includes biographical material on noted historical figures. Five keep-cases in a paperboard slipcase.
—JJB



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