Historian Simon Schama: “Too much obligation to have perfect balance” in history filmmaking today

Historian Simon Schama’s latest series, The Story of the Jews, concludes tonight on PBS. It’s a wonderful program, not just for the many fascinating and informative elements in it, but also for Schama’s presentation of the history. His guiding us through the series recalls old-school hosts in that it’s him, the history, and his passion for the topic first and foremost. Nothing is particularly spiced up with CGI, and it’s the historical facts, and Schama’s expertise with presenting them in an educational yet emotional way, connecting with audiences as he would with a classroom, that makes the show. His presentation of history reminds me of the way David Attenborough would present natural history films, and that sort of presentation seems to be a lost art in the realm of history on television.


That sense of loss may be felt by audiences, even in a subconscious way, when they bemoan how the History Channel, or Discovery, or Nat Geo have tended, of late, more toward the sensational and, with some exceptions, a watered-down approach, not letting the often truly exciting facts of history or nature speak for themselves and enthrall audiences.

When I talked with Schama a few months back about The Story of the Jews, he noted this aspect of modern history filmmaking, and also added another thought on the subject:

“I think there’s too much obligation to have perfect balance of a conservative view, a liberal view, a black, a white, a woman, a man,” Schama told me. “That kind of sucks the danger out of the format. So I would love to see historical filmmaking have a kind of poetic leap, a jump into some other way of how you do it.”

However and whenever that leap is made, and whomever does it, Simon Schama would be a good model to emulate.


Simon Schama image courtesy of Tim Kirby © Oxford Film & Television 2012