In a speech to an audience in London last week, the historian Simon Schama joked about why he didn't need a microphone. "My father always used to stand at the back of the room and say, 'Louder, Simon, louder.' It explains my whole life."
Loud, passionate, ambitious and above all visible, Schama is the antithesis of the ivory tower academic. He has no truck with secluded contemplation. Instead, he thrives on debate, noise and, most of all, people. When he's not on television – and when is he not on television? – he's giving radio lectures, filing op-ed pieces for various newspapers, writing about food for GQ or promoting his latest historical bestseller.
He is a prolific writer who, for all his love of the crowd, has also served his time in the study and the archives. The author of 16 books that cover territory as diverse as slavery, the French Revolution and a three-part history of Britain, he has somehow managed to make 10 major documentary series for the BBC in the last two decades. By many accounts, his latest, The Story of the Jews, is also his greatest.
A towering achievement that demonstrates Schama's finest qualities to exhilarating effect, it is at once epic yet intimate, intellectually commanding but instantly accessible. It is also tremendously moving, both as a document of suffering and a celebration of struggle.
There is a tendency when considering any historical documentary series to hark back to the glory days of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, as if it were itself the embodiment of civilisation after which the barbarians were let loose. But Schama's five-part series stands by itself without any need to invoke earlier cultural high points. It is not just a bravura piece of television, but an astonishing recapitulation of a 4,000-year story.
In 1989, to coincide with the bicentenary of the French Revolution, Schama published his first big selling book, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. No less an authority than Eric Hobsbawm praised the author for his erudition, describing the book as "exceptionally stylish and eloquent", while also criticising Schama's tendency to focus on particular individuals at the expense of a more systematic approach.
What that book demonstrated above all is that Schama is a natural storyteller. He can do analysis and sift facts, but his greatest strength lies in creating a powerful narrative out of the churning, chaotic drama of historical events. History may be one effing thing after another, to paraphrase Alan Bennett, but for Schama the job of the historian is to unearth the effing storyline that links them together.
As he says in The Story of the Jews: "We are our story." Schama said in the first episode that it was what made him want to be a historian in the first place. His own story is that he was born in the closing stages of the Second World War, on the night before the Allies bombed Dresden. He grew up in Essex and north London and his father, who had held dreams of becoming an actor, was a businessman in the rag trade. Schama once said that his childhood home was a removal van, because his father was always going broke.
But his father passed on an interest in Jewish and British history, taking the young Schama on boat trips along the Thames as he spoke about Disraeli and the characterisation of Jews in English literature. By his own account, the household was a lively and voluble place and the family were known in the neighbourhood for "overdoing it". Schama recalls his mother singing Ethel Merman very loudly at the breakfast table.
"'There's no business like show business' while I was eating my yoghurt and putting my coat on."
Schama was a precocious and talkative child, the kind proud parents liked to see perform. But at the age of six he stopped talking for a period.
"My parents liked to show me off as a little mad talker with an amazing memory. I would have to recite the Latin names of flowers. And I remember deciding to refuse them this. It was a prolonged sulk that went on and on to become a kind of brief childhood madness. I enjoyed the power certainly, but it couldn't last."
No, it couldn't. Schama was born to talk and since that brief word strike, his mind and mouth have been working overtime. He read history at Cambridge and gained a starred first, followed by stints as a history lecturer at Cambridge and Oxford before making his decisive move to America to take up a chair at Harvard.
Schama was a friend of his critic Hobsbawm and is also friendly with the late historian's daughter, Julia, for whom he speaks at her Names Not Numbers talking heads events.
"He's very gregarious, warm and intense," she says. "He feels things very deeply. He doesn't pull his punches. He thinks life is important. But he's thoroughly egalitarian – he wants to chat with anyone who comes into his orbit. I think he should be cloned. The world would be a better place."
By the mid-90s, Schama was art critic for the New Yorker, had a chair at Columbia University and had written and presented two series on art for the BBC. Since then, he's balanced his post in New York, from which he took a sabbatical to make The Story of the Jews, with making films in Britain, trailing an ever-growing army of fans in his wake.
With popularity, however, comes envy, particularly in academic circles, and Schama has not escaped the accusation that he has "dumbed down". It's a charge that he vehemently rejects.
To his accusers, he says he wants to say: "'Try it, Buster. See how unbelievably demanding it is.' Anyone can write an academic piece directed at other academics. To write something that delivers an argument and a gripping storyline to someone's granny or eight-year-old takes the highest quality of your powers. I am completely unrepentant. One should not feel shifty."
With his robust opinions and emphatic delivery, Schama isn't shifty, but he isn't necessarily easy to place. A liberal, he isn't a historian of the left or right. He's not divisive like, say, his fellow TV historian, Niall Ferguson. As one observer puts it: "The liberal left like to think that he belongs to them and the liberal right think that he's one of theirs." This uncertainty was highlighted when he took up an advisory role to Michael Gove, as the education secretary set about reforming the teaching of history in schools. Schama was in agreement with Gove that history had lost its binding thread and become a series of unrelated greatest hits – the Tudors, the Nazis etc.
In 2010, he said that the way that the subject was taught threatened to cut "the cord of our national memory", explaining that "chronology is very important".
His fear, he wrote, was that unless children could be won over to history, "their imagination will be held hostage in the cage of the eternal now".
Never one to remain in her own cage, Mary Beard, the Cambridge classicist, suggested Schama's role was "an insult to history teachers" and dismissed the man himself as "not only glitzy, but also cheap".
But earlier this year, after Gove published his draft curriculum, Schama delighted his audience at the Hay festival by deriding the proposals. "It's 1066 and All That – without the jokes," he quipped.
Aside from history, Schama's great passions are food, art and conversation. By his own admission, he has a magpie mind that has led him to write on subjects far divorced from his specialities. "There are one or two things I know I can't write about," he has said."DIY, cricket, automobile repair. I could study it for a lifetime and not produce a word on the carburettor."
With The Story of the Jews, however, he is solidly on home turf. It's the story he's been working on and towards since he started out in academia. In an exam when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge, he had to select between three essay titles. "I chose 'The Manor' and wrote not on feudalism but on how I remembered my Uncle Harry describing Golders Green as his manor."
He set up a Jewish reading group when he lectured at Cambridge, then lectured on Jewish history at Oxford. In the 1970s, he embarked on extensive research with the intention of writing a Jewish history, but daunted by the scale of the task, he eventually gave up. It's to the credit of BBC's Adam Kemp that four years ago he was able to persuade Schama to return to the story that has haunted the historian his whole life.
"It was not just that Jewish history was inexplicable without everyone else's history," Shama recently wrote. "It was that the history of the world was inexplicable without Jewish history." Never has this point been more persuasively argued than in Schama's spellbinding The Story of the Jews.
Born 13 February 1945 in London. His parents were Jews with both Ashkenazi and Sephardic roots.
Best of times The publication of Citizens in 1989, which made Schama's name and won him the NCR Book award.
His twin achievements at the BBC. First, the 15-part A History of Britain to tie in with the millennium celebrations and this year's The Story of the Jews, expected by many to be his greatest yet.
Worst of times It's been a story of unbroken success, but Schama has been repeatedly criticised for his Zionism, most recently coming under attack from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign for making a "moral" case for Israel.
What he says "You wouldn't know it but I'm good at... singing. I have a lounge-lizard repertoire. I do a croaky Tom Waits, but need to drink and smoke more to get it right."
What they say "This book shows Schama at his best… a labour of love, as full of memorable incident as a Bellow novel and wittier than a Woody Allen movie." Journalist Daniel Johnson on The Story of the Jews, the book.
"Simon Schama is the most personable… of telly historians… he is bigger on screen than off… his voice… speaks as if to the sound of violins."
Television critic AA Gill.