An Empire of the Mind

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America's appetite for history on TV is simple: if it's not ours and nothing blows up, we're not interested. But we should all make an exception for author Simon Schama's A History of Britain (History Channel, Nov. 4 and 5, 9p.m. E.T.), a densely packed but lively and entertaining documentary that looks at great events as an exchange of ideas more than of artillery rounds.

History is only nominally about Britain. The final installment — like the first two, which aired in 2000 and 2001--is really about themes that shaped the world through the centuries. (The full series will be out on video and DVD in November.) In this installment — which begins with the late 18th century — the Napoleonic wars and the Romantic era are about changing notions of liberty and nature; the Victorian era, about emerging concepts of gender and family life; colonialism, about the hubris of liberal humanism. The last hour neatly encapsulates the entire 20th century by comparing Winston Churchill and George Orwell and the very different ways the aristocrat and the socialist championed freedom.

Schama, narrating in a scruffy leather jacket, is a popularizer in the best sense. He can be snarky, poetic or both, as when he describes Queen Victoria's funeral procession, the monarch dressed in white: "There was a touch of Miss Havisham about this — the 80-year-old, flower-bedecked virgin bride." He's an enlightening, entertaining guide to a history that isn't ours, except that it really is.