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I've never been one for history documentaries, and while I am primarily
Scottish in my ancestry, as an American my knowledge or even interest
in Scottish history was extremely poor. Reviews such as the one by
surferdudea1904 were also hardly encouraging, so I began this
documentary with very low expectations indeed.
Fortunately I ended up being VERY pleasantly surprised. This is one of the most gorgeous series I have ever seen. I was sucked in immediately by the presenter Neil Oliver, who is an absolute god. Dry history text fans be warned -- this man cares deeply about his country and will make you feel it in every word he speaks. Not being familiar with the history I can't comment on the accuracy of all of the facts presented, but I do know that I found myself completely enveloped in the lives of these people centuries long dead. History truly "comes alive" in this series. The scenery and graphics were also just breath-taking. I've since watched several episodes over again, which is something I normally reserve only for David Attenborough's nature documentaries.
Really, this series is an absolute treat. Even if you aren't a student of Scotland's history (as I was not -- although I am much more interested now!), give it a try. I daresay you will not be disappointed. What a beauty!
Scottish history is extremely rich. You cannot break it down into
simple black & white events. Many issues, personalities and dynamics
require it for someone to make sense of it all.
That's what this series is all about. It does an excellent job at giving you a broad brush view of not just what happened, but why it happened.
Criticism of this show, does not understand what it is about.
Oliver is a very good story teller with a warm Scottish accent. The acting, the maps, the photography add interest very well.
A well done production on some difficult subjects that makes you hungry for more. This is not a criticism, but a credit to the producers.
For those of us who have an interest (or Scottish ancestry) and want to
know about the history this series is a great entre. While everything
may not be exactly according to fact it is enough so and presented in
such a way that you are riveted to every moment of what's going on. In
some cases there is a bit too much repetition of images but for the
most part it's colorful and dynamic. Neil Oliver, as a native Scot and
a history expert, is the perfect choice as a presenter. His delivery is
in the fine tradition of Scottish story tellers and part of the reason
Definitely worth watching.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It is a well-produced, visually stunning series, but: as much as Neil
Oliver wants to avoid it (I believe) his History of Scotland shows the
Scots as nation of indecisive, self-serving idiots who seem hell-bent
on losing out because of internal strife. From Robert the Bruce, who,
when he had the chance to collect Scotland back in the 14th century,
instead opted for weeding out his own personal enemies in a mafia-like
murderous spree, to the lack of national resolve in 1979 when Scotland
lost out to Margaret Thatcher who was by all accounts the better
man, and deprived Scotland of both oil and home rule.
Neil Oliver starts by stating that since Scotland's history is mostly told by other than Scots, much of it is not trustworthy, but in fact, his own version of the story cannot bear a closer scrutiny either. To name one thing: in the otherwise good episode that deals with Benjamin Franklin and Adam Smith, Oliver makes the mistake of saying: "The new American constitution made good its promise of rights and freedom for all, but it never occurred to its founding fathers to extend those same freedoms to slaves." In fact, if Oliver had been a scrupulous historian and had investigated his subject instead of sacrificing proper studies in favor of glib remarks, he would know that it more than occurred to the founding fathers. He would have found that both Franklin and Jefferson considered it deeply, that Franklin had written an essay denouncing slavery already in the 1750s (long before the Somerset case also included in the series brought slavery to the public eye in England and Scotland), and that Franklin still denounced slavery with almost his dying breath in 1790. In fact,in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson accused England of perpetuating the slave trade and slavery was only discarded as an issue in 1776 because it would cause an unaffordable split among the 13 states opposing Britain in the War of Independence.
I greatly enjoy the fact that historical documentaries are so much more visually appealing now than ever before, but I do wish that the visuals were backed up by the thorough studies of for instance a Kenneth Clark (with "Civilization" in the 1960s). As it is, it's as much dazzle as substance, and I deplore that.
But, on the whole, I enjoyed the series; hence, the seven stars.
Round about 9 years ago we were given the fantastic series "A History
of Britain" presented by Simon Schama. With a brilliant blend of
stunning scenery, inspired soundtracks and a very charismatic presenter
- we were taken on an engaging and fascinating (albeit Anglo-centric)
history of Britain. Schama's own style for history gave a sense of
connection to those characters he was describing. His style of
storytelling also allowed us to revisit known events - but to see them
from new perspectives. At the time BBC Scotland wanting to get in on
the act quickly commissioned its own version "In Search of Scotland"
which instead came across as a lame Secondary School History programme.
It was quickly forgotten about - and with good reason.
Fast forward to 2009 and BBC Scotland have decided to have another crack at the whip. How successful have they been? Lets get the plus points up first. Well there has been a serious attempt at telling parts of Scottish history that don't involve the usual cliché areas. These include the fascinating look at Alexander II and the reigns of the early Stuarts. The second plus point that springs to mind is the soundtrack that accompanies the series. Few will have noticed it - but it was atmospheric and cleverly used in places.
To the minus points now - and unfortunately there are plenty. Firstly to the presenter: Neil Oliver. Without a doubt he was chosen because of his fan base in the TV series Coast. However he lacks the story telling ability required for a history series. Instead of whipping up the audience, it feels like we are being read to from a National Trust guidebook.
Lets us turn to the history covered. While I was impressed by the attempt to cover a wider breadth of history - the series failed to keep up this standard. Quickly it lurched in to devoting almost two episodes to Wallace and Bruce. Then a few episodes later we were back into Mary Queen of Scots and James VI. Now there was a clear attempt to give a new angle on the story - but its hard to get interested in these topics that have been done to death on TV and probably in schools. It felt that they lacked any kind of passionate storytelling. Schama's series worked so well because he made it a very personalised version of history - what he saw as important. A History of Scotland clearly has had a number of committees discussing what should be in the series (and having read the newspaper reports on the series, it seems to be the case that it is the same people who are responsible for pumping out the usual dull Scottish history series like "In Search of Scotland". The cost is that the show feels like a Scottish history tour guide rather than an engaging personal journey by one man.
And the cardinal sin has been committed! You never ever let other professors and specialists on to the show to talk about dusty old documents. This happened far to often in the series. If you have to refer to the documents then the presenter should do that and only in small doses. No long dialogues or as Oliver did at one point - whip out a 2008 edition of "Dialogue on the Laws of Kingship" - looked like he hadn't learned his lines and so resorted to reading from the book. A school pupil could get aways with that - not a BBC History presenter.
A History of Scotland has many more episodes to go. But it needs to be more radical and get away from its over-reliance on professor type history. Oliver could work as a presenter - but he needs to inject his own personality into the show - not read something that has been prepared for him. History documentaries like this are about one person taking a journey, its this journey that the audience will latch on to, and return to watch time and time again.
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