Most of the history I know and remember comes from my inspirational prep school teacher Mr Bradshaw. History was taught so much better in those days. It was all kings and queens, battles and dates, with no room for any of that nonsense like,‘Imagine you are a suffragette going to protest the oppressive male hegemony at the races. Describe how it feels to be crushed by the king’s horse.’
Nor was there any question that you were participating in some kind of collaborative learning experience. Your ‘master’ taught; you listened and learned — and occasionally made distracting jokes and got bits of chalk chucked at you. That was the deal and it worked very well. This was the tail end of the era defined by programmes like Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: one still confident enough to imagine that there are such things as good and bad art, superior and inferior cultures, right and wrong judgments.
Now, instead, we have Civilisations (BBC2, Thursdays). Here’s one of the fundamental differences between this and its unpluralised predecessor. When Clark says at the beginning that he doesn’t know what civilisation is (‘I don’t know. I can’t describe it in abstract terms — yet’), it’s just false modesty. When Simon Schama says the same thing, it’s post-modern intellectual cowardice. He doesn’t want to venture an opinion, for who would dare when we now know that all cultures and values have equal merit, and that to ‘privilege’ one over another is ‘elitist’?
This is a pity, because when he’s not being a flustered, neurotic old woman blithering on about refugee rights or the horrors of Brexit, Schama has the makings of a first-rate TV historian. As presenters go, I’d say he’s my third favourite after Andrew Graham-Dixon and the brilliant James Fox (currently fronting the must-see The Art of Japanese Life on BBC4).