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A&E Home Video presents
A History of Britain: The Complete Collection (2000)

"How was it then that in a little over a century the people who thought of themselves as the freest on earth ended up subjugating much of the world's population....How was it that the Empire of the Free ended up the Empire of the Slaves?"
- Simon Schama, in episode 11

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: January 12, 2003

Stars: Simon Schama
Other Stars: Elvis Costello, Jonathan Pryce, Peter Cushing
Director: Martin Davidson, Liz Hartford, Clare Beavan, Ian Bremner, Paul Tilzey, Tim Kirby, Martina Hall, Mike Ibeji, Jamie Muir

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, gore, brief nudity)
Run Time: 14h:40m:22s
Release Date: November 26, 2002
UPC: 733961704464
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A-A-B+ D

DVD Review

American history and law both are hugely dependent on the evolution of Britain. Institutions that are familiar to all have their roots in centuries gone by in the Britain Isles. One might wonder why such a little island might have such an influence, and this fifteen-part documentary attempts to provide the background that is necessary to an understanding of many issues that continue to plague the world, including Irish and Scottish nationalism and unrest.

The program is hosted and written by noted historian Simon Schama, whose softspoken Essex accent provides the background for the centuries-long drama that unfolds here. The documentary is not just turgid lecture, though, but helps make the history of names, dates and battles highly accessible. Part of this is accomplished by visiting actual sites and using contemporary illustrations; part is also brought about by borrowing music video techniques, inlcuding blurring, distortion, solarization, time lapse photography and even, on occasion, upside-down camera work, to keep a visually compelling activity on the screen. But the story itself is also compelling, and readily graspable by any viewer, rendering a wonderful service by making this span of history understandable, yet without distorting unnecessarily or resorting to folktales, many of which are debunked along the way.

The first episode, Beginnings, covers over 4000 years, from Neolithic Britain, through the Roman Conquest, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Viking invasions and the forging of a nation under Alfred the Great. The beginnings of Christianity in the British Isles are present here with the beginnings of Irish-English enmity seen in the adoption of Roman Christianity and disdain of the Irish-Gaelic branch. A notable segment here is discussion of the revolutionary techniques of Boudicca, leader of one of the few successful revolts against the Romans.

We're all familiar with the year 1066 and Conquest, the second episode, details the events leading up to the Norman Conquest, with the intrigue in the British court and betrayals in the royal family leading to civil war in the face of the French invader. This segment is illustrated by some of the best looks I've ever seen at the fabled Bayeux Tapestry, a lengthy embroidery that retells the tale of the Conquest. The third episode, Dynasty, follows the Angevin kings as they solidify the Conquest, giving particular attention to the struggles of Henry II and Thomas á Becket, culminating in the murder of the Archbishop in his own cathedral. The rights of the King expand, but in the end are curbed for the moment by the Magna Carta.

Episode four, Nations, outlines the efforts of Edwards I and II to bring in Wales and Scotland (largely ignored by the program up to this point), with discussion of Robert the Bruce and some factual background regarding Braveheart's hero, William Wallace. The fifth episode, King Death, centers on the effects of the Black Death on Britain, leaving over half the population dead. One of the amusing highlights of this segment is the development of the doubledecker tomb, with the image above of the person in life, and the image below the emaciated corpse, as a carved expression of the national obsession with death in this period. The focus of the history is on the Peasant's Revolt and the kingship of Richard II, presented here as a stronger figure than the weak and ineffectual title character of Shakespeare's history.

The 15th century with the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses is skipped with hardly a mention, going forward to the Tudors and the beginning of the formation of Protestant England. The sixth program, Burning Convictions, gives vivid reality to the back-and-forth of Protestant and Catholic England, and the ensuing bloodshed that followed each swing of the pendulum. Episode seven, The Body of the Queen focuses on Elizabeth I and her Scottish counterpart Mary, Queen of Scots. This episode renders transparent the often difficult to fathom intrigues surrounding Mary, such as the issues surrounding her husbands Darnley and Bothwell. The threat that Mary represented to Elizabeth is also well presented: not only did she, as a Catholic, see Elizabeth as illegitimate (and thus ineligible to be queen), but Mary saw herself as next in the succession, having a Tudor great-grandfather.

Episodes eight and nine center on the English Civil War, with the beheading of Charles I as a centerpiece. The British Wars tracks Charles' missteps, beginning with the ruinous expenses he ran up with unnecessary foreign wars. Revolutions follows the king's beheading with the rule of Oliver Cromwell and his band of religious fanatics, and the seemingly endless flow of blood that was provoked by his demented fervor. Following Cromwell's death, the restoration of the Stuarts follows, with the dual disasters of the 1665 Plague and 1666's Great Fire of London. The struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism was not over, however, for the restored Stuarts were soon recognized as a danger in the person of James II, who had to be driven out by an invited Dutch prince lest his Catholic son inherit the throne. Elvis Costello completists, note that the bespectacled one sings a folk song in episode nine.

Britain eventually became, above all, a mercantile power. Episode ten, Britannia Incorporated traces this transformation of power. In particular, an ill-advised Scottish mercantile adventure in Panama ended in ruin, bringing Scotland irrevocably into the fold and resulting in a formal Act of Union. Robert Walpole, the first prime minister, actively promoted such activities, though more profitably so. At the same time, social consciousness began to arise, demonstrated here through the establishment of the Foundling Hospital, in hopes of reducing the nearly 100% fatality rate of abandoned infants. The contradiction between such empire building and liberal sentiment is brought to a height in The Wrong Empire, as the paradox of the British people valuing liberty but enslaving much of the world came to the forefront. The American Revolution from a British (though not unsympathetic) point of view and the conquest of India by Clive are in turn examined for very different results.

The English people are notorious for their love of gardens and nature, and episode twelve, Forces of Nature, examines this in both a literal and metaphorical sense. In a literal sense, with the attempts at reform to return Britain to an agrarian setting, culminating in the Peterloo Massacre. In the metaphorical sense, the storms of the French Revolution surely must have seemed as awesome as any tornado or hurricane, inspiring terror and a wave of repression.

Victoria and Her Sisters brings the story into the mid-19th century as personified by the long-reigning Queen in episode thirteen. The theme here is the personal drama of Victoria and her beloved Albert, alongside the women of 19th century Britain who expanded the boundaries of their gender's roles. Among these are muckraking author Elizabeth Gaskell, whose Mary Barton brought the miserable conditions of working class Manchester into view; Elizabeth Garrett, the first female doctor; social reformer Annie Besant; and Julia Cameron, a noted photographic artist. At the same time, the protests against the Corn Laws and voting restrictions are brought forward by the Chartist movement, a reform movement that was in the forefront of liberal thought at the time. Towards the end of this episode, one is even treated to that very rarest of sights: the aged Queen Victoria with a broad grin on her face.

The problems of empire are further examined in episode fourteen Empire of Good Intentions. Here the two notable issues of Ireland and India are taken in turn, with famines hitting both nations hard while the Empire profited wildly. The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 is covered in horrific detail, as is the fetish of the British for the free market, given dreadful reality in the starvation of millions in India while grain surpluses were available. With Ireland, the rise of Parnell and the persistent issue of Home Rule, pushed by Gladstone, are given a powerful treatment, with direct relation to the 20th and 21st century wracking pains that Ireland has undergone and inflicted. Wrapping up the set is The Two Winstons, an examination of the 20th century through Sir Winston Churchill and George Orwell, creator of Winston Smith in his 1984. While the aristocrat and the socialist are almost completely different, they were both united in a hatred of fascism. In addition, both were devoted to history and its lessons; as such this pair makes for a fitting conclusion to this series and the hopeful look forward that it provides, should the lessons of history be remembered.

Although there are some curious omissions over the nearly 15 hours, the whole presentation makes for a good introduction to the subject. As holder of a degree in English history, I can't say that I find any fault in the materials presented here, and was gratified to see numerous details of which I was unaware. Thus this set can be enjoyed both by those new to British history and those quite familiar with it.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The full-frame transfer looks quite nice throughout. Detail is often excellent, and color is extremely vivid. At times stairstepping is evident, but little ringing or other compression artifacts are present. Black levels are excellent for a television program, and shadow detail is quite good. Several raggedy clips from the Peter Cushing adaptation of 1984 are included in the final segment; when will this be available on DVD, I wonder?

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The 2.0 Dolby Surround track is clean and crisp, without hiss. The music has solid depth and presence. There is very little surround activity beyond modest musical strains. While not a demo track by any means, it does the job admirably.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 120 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
5 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Biographical sketches of historical notables
Extras Review: The sole extra presented is a set of biographies that run two to four screens in length. In addition to host/writer Simon Schama, the biographies include Edward the Confessor, Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth I, The Jacobites, King George III, Queen Victoria, William Ewart Gladstone and Sir Winston Churchill. Much of this material duplicates the program and is of little value. Chaptering is a little thin, with 8 stops per hour-long episode.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

A sweeping review of the British peoples and their struggles first to form a nation and then an empire. While occasionally disjointed and certainly not cohesive (at times it seems more like Selected Moments from British History), the presentation is excellent and the content is solid.


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