SIMON Schama: Wants to change the way art history is done on TV





SIMON Schama breaks off a conversation about his new TV series to talk about kippers. "Scotland has almost all my favourite foods in the world. I'm so glad I don't live here because I would be incredibly fat. I'd eat four kippers for breakfast, and I'd eat shortbread every day all day long. And I'd drink vast amounts of whisky."

Then, I suggest, he begins to see why we Scots are dropping like flies from diet-related illnesses? "Yeah, but I hope you die happy!" he chuckles, his mouth full of shortbread crumbs.

And I begin to see why people like Schama. It's not so much the mercurial intellect, or even his passion to communicate it, it's the fact that the BBC's face of history wears red suede shoes and wants four kippers for breakfast. He laughs a lot, often at himself, loves recalling his TV slip-ups. "Someone has actually done a montage of Schama's worst moments on TV, you should see it, it's very funny."

He talks quickly, flamboyantly, breaking off and interjecting as new thoughts come crowding in. Nothing is merely "good" if it can be "really good" or even "extraordinary". He's easily bored and fidgets constantly, a coiled spring of energy. So much to do, his body language says as he re-crosses his legs for the 20th time, so little time.

Schama is 61, but became a household name just six years ago when his History of Britain was launched. "Life is short and getting ever shorter for me, and I'm in television to try to do something different each time. After I'd finished the History of Britain, everyone wanted me to do the history of something else - Belgium or Botswana or whatever. I wasn't going to do that.

" I wanted to do something different, both in terms of the storytelling, and in terms of the craft of television itself."

Which brings us to his new series, The Power of Art, which begins tonight on BBC2, an eight-part series that was two years in the making. Each programme features a great artist: Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, David, Turner, Van Gogh, Picasso and Rothko, captured at a moment of personal or professional crisis, a make-or-break period which in turn led to a great masterpiece.

Schama is typically ambitious. He wants to change the way art history is done on TV. "Too often it feels like being walked by the acoustic-guide along a wall of paintings. It feels very demure, and that's not what the greatest art is at all.

"If only you could free yourself from this approach, you could construct it as if you were writing a programme about a murder or a love affair, a war or a revolution."...

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