The Peabody Awards

The Peabody Awards

Revolutionary Peabodys

Noel Holston - 6/30/2014
Revolutionary Peabodys

By all means break out your stars and stripes. Lay in a supply of firecrackers and sparklers as well. But if you really want to celebrate the 4th of July, immerse yourself in the remarkable, Peabody Award-winning documentary series, Liberty! The American Revolution. It’s as close as you’re going to get to time-traveling back to the days when our democracy was being born and the air was as full of ideas as musket balls.

Co-produced by Twin Cities Public Television and Middlemarch Films, Liberty! was first televised in 1997. Over the course of six hours, it artfully blends readings from 18th century letters and diaries, dramatic re-creations and historians’ commentary to evoke events and the spirit of the years from 1763, when the notions of independence from England were beginning to take hold in the colonies, to 1789, when the Constitution was ratified.

Liberty! is inevitably incomplete but consistently surprising, an engrossing drama and an irresistible enticement to learn more. It pulses with human intellect, foibles, anxiety, anger, passion and humor.

The contributing historians – including women, African Americans and Native Americans – describe events with such immediacy you might think they happened yesterday. Some of the British scholars who explain the Tory side sound as if they’re still annoyed with us.

Music from the era, performed by 20th century artists from Yo-Yo Ma to Wynton Marsalis to James Taylor, further contributes to the sense of being there.

Television is often said to be partial to action and uncomfortable with ideas, but Liberty! contradicts the conventional wisdom. If anything, it’s more compelling when it’s concerned with the concepts of freedom and self-government than when it’s showing reenactments of patriots ambushing redcoats. But fear not, action fans, there’s a good bit of that too. In some scenes, you can almost smell the black powder.

The Peabody board hailed the series as “an invigorating, entertaining and passionate historical documentary of the founding impulses of American democracy.” It’s all that and more – a Yankee doodle dandy of a documentary.

Liberty! wasn’t the first program about America’s birthing pains to be honored with a Peabody.

A Conversation with Lord North, wherein the 1770-1782 Prime Minister of Great Britain (played by Peter Ustinov), was “interviewed” by CBS News grandee Eric Severied, got a Peabody in 1971. Suddenly an Eagle, an ABC News documentary that recalled the revolution through visits to key historic sites, took home the prize 1976, the year of our Bicentennial.

Alas, you’re about as likely to find a copy of one of those as a tape of Norman Corwin’s 1941 radio special about the Bill of Rights.

Ardent Washingtonians, however, should have no problem locating a pair of Peabody winners about the father of our country.

George Washington (1984) is an eight-hour biographical miniseries with Barry Bostwick in the title role, Patty Duke as Martha and a supporting cast of notables who include James Mason, Hal Holbrook and Trevor.

Shorter (and even better) is The Crossing (2000), a made-for-TV movie in which Washington and his soldiers cross the Delaware River to launch a bold, game-changing sneak attack on the British garrison in Trenton, New Jersey. Jeff Daniels makes a fine GW, and Sebastian Roche (later of Law & Order) makes an indelible impression as the general’s top aide.