11/04/2002 at 01:00 AM EST
The History Channel: Mon.-Tues., Nov. 4-5,9 p.m. ET
Something about Simon Schama—his biting sarcasm, his disdain for cant—tells me that the Columbia University professor would be a tough grader if he gave viewers a quiz on this five-hour conclusion to his magisterial TV history of Great Britain. (The first two installments aired in 2000 and 2001.) Schama, who wrote and narrated the program, makes you pay attention, and you'll be glad you did.
Handsomely filmed in France, Ireland and India as well as the U.K., Schama's finale covers the 1780s to the 1960s. Chronology becomes a bit confused as a result of his decision to treat the reign of Queen Victoria and the decline of the British Empire in separate segments. On the whole, however, Schama's storytelling is uncommonly skillful, especially in the last segment, which compares and contrasts the lives of Winston Churchill and George Orwell.
Bottom Line: Aces history