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Sunday, 26 May, 2002, 12:59 GMT 13:59 UK
Interview with Professor Simon Schama and Professor Eric Hobsbawm, historians
BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW: PROFESSOR SIMON SCHAMA & PROFESSOR ERIC HOBSBAWM, Historians MAY 26th, 2002
Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used
DAVID FROST: Simon Schama's concluding series of A History of Britain starts on BBC2 on Tuesday and if the last two series are anything to go by it will attract a terrific audience. But it's not just on the BBC that history programmes are doing well, they're in vogue on all channels, including the History Channel. This new series covers more than 200 years and takes us up to the present day. Here with a brief excerpt.
DAVID FROST: Well we're joined right now by the presenter of A History of Britain, Professor Simon Schama. Simon, welcome.
SIMON SCHAMA: Hello David.
DAVID FROST: And congratulations on the success of the series so far.
SIMON SCHAMA: Thank you.
DAVID FROST: And we're joined by Professor Eric Hobsbawm, arguably Britain's most distinguished living historian. Eric welcome.
ERIC HOBSBAWM: Thank you very much.
DAVID FROST: Let's start with the great thing which is sort of proven, partially and mainly by the History of Britain but by other series as well, that there does seem to be is history the new cookery, as they say and so on. There does seem to be a real taste for, a thirst for history on television on the moment, that the series do well and are well responded to and there seems to be more and more. How do you account for that - apart of course from the brilliance of the people who do it at the moment.
SIMON SCHAMA: That goes without saying. It's long simmered stew, it's not fast food. I actually think that history has fed off the restlessness of cyber space, of kind of the frantic, segmented nature of the way we lead our lives. People want to be connected. They want to know where we are, who we are, it gives you a bit of moorings. It slows down time just a little bit, connects you to a longer reach of time. It's like a, you know, I wouldn't say it has a sedative effect - you don't want people to go to sleep, it should be exciting as well - but it's storytelling and argument, storytelling and thought, and it just does give us a longer span than a five minute segment in which we lead, seem to lead a lot of our life.
DAVID FROST: Eric, do you think that's true? Do you think that history on television speaks to the restless souls?
ERIC HOBSBAWM: Yes I think it's a protest against forgetting. I mean our society is geared to make us forget. It's about today when we enjoy what we ought to; it's about tomorrow when we have more things to buy, which are different; it's about today when yesterday's news is in the dustbin. But human beings don't want to forget. It's built in to them.
DAVID FROST: History is part of their DNA is it?
ERIC HOBSBAWM: I think relating to the past, their own past and the general past, is part of the DNA. You can see this when a few months ago they opened the census of 1901 and the computers were completely drowned with millions of people who wanted to find out what their ancestors had done a hundred years ago.
SIMON SCHAMA: That was what Herodita said, you know, who started it all on Western history, is that he also said 'so that deeds of the Greeks and Persians will not be wiped from time,' says his first self-promoting paragraph, and it remains as true now as it was then.
DAVID FROST: And you said that television is very good for making a story into a drama and so on, for combining that with argument and so on.
SIMON SCHAMA: That's the aim, I think. I mean, again, from the very beginning, history wasn't content simply to be nostalgic fairytales, it wanted to make you think. But it introduces, what I would call, debate by stealth. It needs to kindle the imagination, hook you on the kind of drama of the story, but then it wants to say and now we will say why should this matter for our life, for our children, for our grandchildren.
DAVID FROST: Is there a division here between Eric or are they, do they come together, different media? I mean are there things that you can do on television you can't do in a book, or vice versa?
ERIC HOBSBAWM: Well the biggest value of television for history is actually about the present, about the 20th century. You can do very little in history programmes before photographs. You can do hardly anything really before films. So it's really for the 20th century that TV is a different kind of medium for history, we live it. Nevertheless, there are things you can do. I'm not so sure about the argument - you need to have a presenter as good and, if you like, you know, as much of a stage presence as Simon, to conduct people, to conduct argument and narrative on television. Pictures themselves, images themselves, don't have continuity and argument. Nevertheless, people need pictures.
DAVID FROST: It is more difficult when you go back though.
SIMON SCHAMA: It is, but I think actually - that's why I'm so grateful for having an extraordinary team of directors, of cameraman, they are all being historians in their way. There are moments when you can - images do speak - we use, for examples, Rubens's great propaganda series of paintings, commissioned by Charles I to glorify the reign of his father, James I, where he appears literally in the process of becoming a god. Only through those pictures, really, was this preposterous fantasy plausible. So the ways you can actually tackle, the way images or architecture or stained glass windows, can be made to be eloquent, they can be made to conduct a debate if you get them right.
DAVID FROST: And you're working, of course, on the history, Eric, the history of Eric Hobsbawm. You're writing your autobiography - is that like any other historical project? Or unlike anything you've done before?
ERIC HOBSBAWM: Well, if you like it's a flipside of the history of the 20th century which I wrote, and it does help to explain, to some extent, not merely the experience of the historian, which is essential, because historians only write the answers to the questions they themselves ask, which are the questions their times ask of some people. It's, if you like, an important thing. I found it interesting and I hope other people may find it interesting - by the way it's coming out in September.
DAVID FROST: Well everybody will be looking forward to that, and to your new series. Was it different - we're talking there about Eric's actually writing the history of his own life - when you get in the middle of history yourself, like with the Queen Mother's funeral, is that a different, a different response you've used to that?
SIMON SCHAMA: It is, it is a different response, you'll see it, but it is, in a sense which you're connecting to the sense of where home is, it comes from the same psychology and the same emotions, in a weird way - I'm just an old fogey, I guess.
DAVID FROST: Thank you both very much indeed for being with us. Many, many thanks.
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