David Reynolds: Will host ambitious new British TV series about the US
On Monday afternoon, Radio 4 launches one of its most ambitious history projects of recent years. America, Empire of Liberty will tell the story of the United States – from the times of the first settlements in the country back in 12,000 BC, through to the present day. It will consist of 90 fifteen-minute episodes, split into three runs of 30 episodes each. Among Radio 4’s history series, only the Nineties’ This Sceptred Isle, a history of Britain, and Neil MacGregor’s forthcoming history of the world illustrated by artefacts from the British Museum (slated for broadcast in 2010) will have been longer.
If Empire sounds like a lot to chew on, the series’ writer and presenter, Cambridge historian David Reynolds (the presenter of BBC4’s impressive Summits documentary series earlier this year), thinks not. “You can listen to a single programme and I hope get something out of it,” he says. Each programme will focus on a self-contained story, be it about the wife of US Founding Father John Adams, or an incident in the Vietnam war, so listeners don’t have to catch every instalment to understand what’s going on. Also, the series will frequently return to Reynolds’ three main themes.
“Listeners will build up a broad sense of the pattern of US history
through the recurrent themes of liberty, empire and faith,” he says. These
themes highlight paradoxes about America that continue to this day.
Reynolds explains: “America is an anti-empire: a country that declared
itself independent of the British Empire but has become, in some senses,
an empire. It is a country of liberty that rested on slavery. It is also a
country which has a strictly separate church and state but where
evangelical Protestantism has again and again played a major role in
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