‘I came into the world to the soundtrack of history,” says Simon Schama as his new series begins, explaining that he was born on 13 February 1945, when Nazi rockets were falling on London and allied bombs were devastating Dresden. If that sounds like a Partridgean piece of self-aggrandisement, it’s forgivable: the three-part Simon Schama’s History of Now (BBC Two) is unabashedly a personal overview of the postwar era, and the art and literature that shaped it.
Episode one, subtitled Truth and Democracy, deals with what Schama sees as an era-defining battle between totalitarianism’s suppression of truth and artists’ unextinguishable yearning to tell it. An admiring glance at Picasso’s Guernica leads into an assessment of the disinformation battle running alongside the Spanish civil war, and how being on the wrong end of Stalinist lies inspired George Orwell to turn propaganda into dystopian fiction. Then, as the hot war of the 1930s and 40s turns cold, we’re in the Soviet Union in the late 50s, where Boris Pasternak knew the dissident sentiments within his epic novel Doctor Zhivago would lead to it being censored, but persevered and, following an exciting series of incidents involving smuggled manuscripts and CIA-backed publications abroad, won the Nobel prize.
Schama, never shy about mentioning his own connection to events, observes that one of those contraband copies was handled by Isaiah Berlin, who would later be Schama’s mentor at Oxford. But the presenter’s visit to Prague in 1965 gives him a more direct investment into the struggle for freedom that forms the centrepiece of the hour. “The ice was cracking: if you went there you could hear it … we did hear it,” says Schama of his time in the Czech capital, before recounting how the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 prompted a period of resistance by writers and musicians, chief among them Václav Havel, whose Charter 77 manifesto and 1978 essay The Power of the Powerless helped his countrymen’s rebel spirit to remain aflame.
Near the episode’s end, Schama holds back tears as he stands on the balcony in Wenceslas Square from which Havel addressed a vast crowd in 1989, with the iron curtain finally falling and with the new Czech Republic, of which Havel would be the founding president, on its way. “That’s why I’m so upset about what’s happening now, with Ukraine,” says Schama, explaining why the memory makes him so emotional. “We cannot afford the liquidation of democracy.”
Schama has clearly been deeply affected by the heinous Russian invasion. Who hasn’t, you might justifiably ask, but in a programme spanning nine decades, Vladimir Putin’s Russia does come up rather a lot. Guernica reminds Schama of the horror in Ukraine, while Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four prompts comparison to Putin’s rewriting of Russian history, and the oppression of Pasternak is deemed more piquant given that “darkness and terror is descending on writers in Russia again”, a sentiment that leads into an interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of the anti-Putin punk band Pussy Riot.
Putin’s kleptocratic capitalism is treated as essentially the same as the communist Soviet Union, his invasion of a sovereign neighbour analogous to the Soviet crushing of dissent within the eastern Bloc. Russia, in whatever form, is the big authoritarian bogeyman: in a programme about the wielding of misinformation and the undermining of democracy, the idea that the west might also be guilty of those things is, aside from a couple of brief citations of Donald Trump as a toxic anomaly, absent.
A lack of nuance also makes it hard to glean anything significant from Schama’s appreciation of his favoured individual works. Passages from Pasternak and Havel receive awestruck readings, but the specific paragraphs chosen amount to little more than a repetition of the basic idea that repressive governments tell porkies. Schama’s rallying cry, inspired by Havel, that the people’s will to “live in truth” must prevail feels – in an era in which outright top-down censorship has been replaced by subtler methods of bending reality, not least more and more citizens seeming to revel in the spreading of untruths – simplistic and outdated.
On occasion, he veers fully into fan-boy banality. In the section on Nineteen Eighty-Four, Schama praises Orwell for recognising that his message “would only find a mass audience if his book was truly great fiction”, as if this were a piercing insight on Orwell’s part, and not just every author’s natural desire to write the best book they can. Poring over a document in the Orwell archive that shows how the novel’s opening page was extensively redrafted, Schama concludes that this unremarkable process was “the writing, fashioning mind at its most brilliant best”.
Schama’s heart is, of course, in the right place. His championing of dissent and freedom over repression and mendacity is correct and admirable. But so far, his History of Now is fighting old battles.
• This article was amended on 1 December 2022. An earlier version described George Orwell as “being on the wrong end of fascist lies”, when Stalinist lies was meant.