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16.02.04


FACTUAL & ARTS TV


Simon Schama speaks out on rival historians


Simon Schama faces hot competition from three world-famous historians who are about to enjoy their TV premiere on BBC FOUR later this month (Monday 23 February, 9.30pm).


Schama's position as popular TV historian, however, is not under threat - all three of them have been dead for more than a century!


Historians Of Genius is a new three-part series in which Schama will introduce BBC FOUR viewers to Lord Macaulay, Edward Gibbon and Thomas Carlyle - the leading historians of their day.


Actors Samuel West, Simon Russell Beale and Bill Paterson take on the role of these writers respectively, using only words from their world-famous texts.


Programme one tackles the reckless pursuit of kingship by Charles II's bastard son, the Duke of Monmouth, and is based on Macaulay's The History of England.


Programme two looks at the excesses of the Roman emperors based on Edward Gibbon's epic The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire.


The final programme in the series tackles the blood and guts of the French Revolution, written in nail-biting style by Carlyle in his The French Revolution.


"None of us can write like Carlyle," admits Simon Schama.


"We shouldn't want to write like Carlyle, because it's not sensible writing, it's not workaday, it's not ironic, the favourite tone of the don, of the academic. It's like being swept away by the magma of a mighty volcano.


"Whenever I go back to that greatest of all 19th century history books I always feel that the historical prose that we practise, that I practise, is sort of like takeaway Chinese, it's just not enough."


Adds Schama, about Edward Gibbon: "'The Gib', as he liked to sign himself in his letters, or sometimes 'the Gibbon', didn't think he'd be read by the masses.


"But boy did he write. Three thousand pages, six volumes. His calling card was 'philosophe et historien'.


"To be a 'philosophe' in the 18th century meant to be someone who had something serious to say about the manners of the past, the present and the future; something serious to say about what civilisation was."


And of Thomas Macauley, he adds: "Part of the reason he wanted to make his histories as exciting as if they were novels, was that he felt that history should be part of what we would sort of pompously call now the common culture of the newly enfranchised middle class that had got the vote in 1832.


"History, he says, is a debatable land. It lies on the margin of two disputed territories; those of poetry and those of philosophy; that of reason and that of the imagination."


All the BBC's digital services are now available on Freeview, the new free-to-view digital terrestrial television service, as well as on satellite and cable.

Freeview offers the BBC's eight television channels, interactive services from BBCi, as well as 11 national BBC radio networks.


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