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1/4 - American Plenty
Friday 10 October, 2008
9:00pm - 10:00pm
Simon Schama brings his ripe turn of phrase and love of America to this latest sweeping history lesson. It's designed as a scene-setter for the upcoming presidential elections, starting with a problem that haunts the contest - the ecology, stupid. It feels like a downbeat episode with which to open, but the account here of how industrial farming turned the breadbasket of the prairies into a dustbowl is vividly imagined, heartfelt and it makes you stop and think. That's the idea - to make us realise why we're at such a stark moment of truth. And it works. Schama may be a bit too fond of showing himself framed against a sunset or gazing at the horizon from astride a rocky outcrop, but his vision of how current droughts mean "the American garden is withering on the vine" is hard to resist. Let's hope McCain and Obama are watching, too.
2/4 - American War
Friday 17 October, 2008
9:00pm - 10:00pm
With Stephen Fry and Simon Schama currently hymning the virtues of the USA in their separate programmes, the special relationship ought to be safer than ever. Schama's series, though, has little in common with Fry's: it's more lecture tour than travelogue; and where Fry hides his intellectual light under a bushel, Schama gives us full beam. His theme this week is war. At a time when most of the world is happy to regard Americans as "trigger-happy cowboys", Schama follows a different historical thread, running from Thomas Jefferson via Mark Twain to current veterans opposing the Iraq War, that shows Americans as reluctant warmakers, but liable to be led astray by belligerent leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt (and, implicitly, George W Bush). Occasionally the pace flags, but overall Schama captures the sweep of US history and tells some moving individual stories along the way.
3/4 - American Fervour
Friday 24 October 2008
9:00pm - 10:00pm
For a potential American president, claiming to have God on your side is pretty persuasive to many American voters. It's a suggestion the Republicans in particular have used to good effect. But for the first time in generations, it's the Democrats who are promoting themselves as the party of God, with their candidate Barack Obama frequently citing his faith as his inspiration. Contrast this with rival Republican John McCain, who has described evangelicals as "agents of intolerance". In the third programme of the series, Simon Schama looks at how religion - and particularly the black church - has shaped US politics. This mainly involves him sitting through several Southern church services (looking slightly uncomfortable), but he does get inexplicably excited while reading some ancient documents that reveal early attitudes towards religious freedoms. But then, of course, the hypothesis of this whole series is that America's future is rooted in its past.
4/4 - What is an American?
Friday 31 October, 2008
9:00pm - 10:00pm
Schama's essays in US history are as frustrating as they are brilliant. Tonight he holds forth on the history of American immigration, a troubled subject that he brings alive as only he knows how. Yet the ponderous pace sometimes makes you want to yell, "Get a move on!" With a bit more oomph in the storytelling, this could, you feel, reach a far larger audience. And it deserves to, because his account of race-hatred episodes from the 19th century is eye-opening, reminding us of the horrors endured by Hispanics and Chinese immigrants on their way to becoming accepted as Americans. "Time and again, America's whites have feared the change that immigrants bring," observes Schama, "even though it's immigrant sweat that has made America." And nothing could illustrate that better than his vivid account of the Chinese labourers who built America's railways and their shameful, stomach-turning treatment.
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