His new programme is about Shakespeare, which is perfect for Schama because he's a bit of an old actor himself: effete, affected, every mannerism thought through. In the opening minutes of Simon Schama's Shakespeare (Friday, BBC Two, 9pm), he materialised from the dark, like Hamlet's father, and delivered a soliloquy on the Bard and history. His eyes were on the gods; his mind, no doubt, was on posterity.
The soliloquy, delivered from the stage of the Globe theatre, was Schama's description of the history plays, especially Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. In those plays, said Schama, we have the cream and the scum: fleabag hostelries, chilly cathedrals where sour bishops crack their knuckles and plot, the dirt and the devilry. The voices are those of ordinary folk, he said: "Cascades of tumbling prattle, ripe curses, symphonies of gossip."
It was a beautiful piece of docu-poetry and exactly what Schama does well; he takes a page from a history book, splatters it with blood and smears it with mud and sweat and beer. When David Starkey or Niall Ferguson do their programmes, you feel like they're using history merely to make a political point, to jab and thrust at lefties. But Schama's mission is different and simpler: it's to give us history in its dirty glory. He turns black and white into colour.
Clearly, what Schama also wants to achieve with this series is to put Shakespeare into his proper historical context, and he does it not with the fruity commentary or the clips of actors doing Shakespeare (some of which were a bit cringy) but with clips of modern news footage. When Shakespeare wrote the history plays, said Schama, he pretended to be writing about the England of the past, but what he was really writing about was the England of his present: Elizabethan England. Schama's point is that the same applies today. Four hundred years ago, Shakespeare's plays were about the present. Today, they are about the present. In 1000 years, they will be about the present.
Schama demonstrated this most convincingly with Henry VI, and in particular the rebel Jack Cade. "Away with all the records of the realm," says Cade. "Now go some and pull down the Savoy." Not only was the man playing Cade dressed in a hoodie when he said this, we then cut to pictures of London rioters fleeing burning shops with widescreen televisions. Then Cade said this: "We will not leave one lord, one gentlemen," at which point we should have cut to a picture of David Cameron perhaps, or the House of Lords. Shakespeare, said Schama, was the first poet of the class war.
Obviously, Schama isn't the first to make this point – every production of a Shakespeare play in modern dress does the same thing – but he does it with such scholarly enthusiasm and gentlemanly persuasion it's hard to nit-pick. He also proves there's more than one way to be a television historian. Starkey and Ferguson take the aggressive route; they are academic hooligans who kick and smash and punch. Schama is better than that; he cuts through the shouting and anger and rises above the empty noise of television. He is a rare and welcome exception to all the sound and fury signifying nothing.