When Simon Schama was approached by the BBC to make the series, he knew that it would be a big commitment and took a long time to decide if it were something he wanted to do. He surmised that if he was to take it on, he would want to “dive in” and be very involved with the production. Besides writing the scripts, which the historian saw as a “screenplay”, he also had an input into other aspects, including the choice of locations. He was concerned that even 15 hour-long programmes would not be enough to tell a story of such magnitude. Accordingly, he and the producers determined that to give each king and queen absolute equal coverage was out of the question: “That way lies madness,” he said. Instead, he worked out the essential themes and stories that demanded to be related.
1. “Beginnings” : Covering the period 3100 BC–1000 AD. Simon Schama starts his story in the Stone Age village of Skara Brae, Orkney. Over the next four thousand years Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Danes, and Christian missionaries arrive, fight, settle and leave their mark on what will become the nations of Britain.
2. “Conquest!”: Covering 1000–1087. 1066 is not the best remembered date in British history for nothing. In the space of nine hours whilst the Battle of Hastings raged, everything changed. Anglo-Saxon England became Norman and, for the next 300 years, its fate was decided by dynasties of Norman rulers.
3. “Dynasty“: Covering 1087–1216. There is no saga more powerful than that of the warring dynasty – domineering father, beautiful, scheming mother and squabbling, murderous sons and daughters, (particularly the nieces). In the years that followed the Norman Conquest, this was the drama played out on the stage of British history.
4. “Nations“: Covering 1216–1348, this is the epic account of how the nations of Britain emerged from under the hammer of England’s “Longshanks” King Edward I, with a sense of who and what they were, which endures to this day.
5. “King Death“: Covering 1348–1500. It took only six years for the plague to ravage the British Isles. Its impact was to last for generations. But from the ashes of this trauma an unexpected and unique class of Englishmen emerged.
6. “Burning Convictions“: Covering 1500–1558. Here Simon Schama charts the upheaval caused as a country renowned for its piety, whose king styled himself Defender of the Faith, turns into one of the most aggressive proponents of the new Protestant faith.
7. “The Body of the Queen“: Covering 1558–1603. This is the story of two queens: Elizabeth I, the consummate politician, and Mary Queen of Scots, the Catholic mother. It is also the story of the birth of a nation.
8. “The British Wars“: Covering 1603–1649. The turbulent civil wars of the early seventeenth century would culminate in two events unique to British history; the public execution of a king and the creation of a republic. Schama tells of the brutal war that tore the country in half and created a new Britain – divided by politics and religion and dominated by the first truly modern army, fighting for ideology, not individual leaders.
9. “Revolutions“: Covering 1649–1689. Political and religious revolutions racked Britain after Charles I’s execution, when Britain was a joyless, kingless republic led by Oliver Cromwell. His rule became so unpopular that for many it was a relief when the monarchy was restored after his death, but Cromwell was also a man of vision who brought about significant reforms.
10. “Britannia Incorporated“: Covering 1690–1750. As the new century dawned, relations between Scotland and England had never been worse. Yet half a century later the two countries would be making a future together based on profit and interest. The new Britain was based on money, not God.
11. “The Wrong Empire“: Covering 1750–1800. The series is the exhilarating and terrible story of how the British Empire came into being through its early settlements–the Caribbean through the sugar plantations (and helped by slavery), the land that later became the United States and India through the British East India Company–and how it eventually came to dominate the world. A story of exploration and daring, but also one of exploitation, conflict, and loss.
12. “Forces of Nature“: Covering 1780–1832. Britain never had the kind of revolution experienced by France in 1789, but it did come close. In the mid-1770s the country was intoxicated by a great surge of political energy. Re-discovering England’s wildernesses, the intellectuals of the “romantic generation” also discovered the plight of the common man, turning nature into a revolutionary force.
13. “Victoria and Her Sisters“: Covering 1830–1910. As the Victorian era began, the massive advance of technology and industrialisation was rapidly reshaping both the landscape and the social structure of the whole country. To a much greater extent than ever before women would take a centre-stage role in shaping society.
14. “The Empire of Good Intentions“: Covering 1830–1925. This episode charts the chequered life of the liberal empire from Ireland to India — the promise of civilisation and material betterment and the delivery of coercion and famine.
15. “The Two Winstons“: Covering 1910–1965. In the final episode, Schama examines the overwhelming presence of the past in the British twentieth century and the struggle of leaders to find a way to make a different national future. As towering figures of the twentieth century, Churchill and Orwell (through his 1984 character Winston Smith) in their different ways exemplify lives spent brooding and acting on that imperial past, and most movingly for us, writing and shaping its history.