'I'm just a historian who wandered into television', The Telegraph, 13 April 2011, by Judith Woods
So, come clean: just how enchanted are you by our latest lovely television historian, Lucy Worsley? You know the one, blonde bob, posh girl’s speech impediment; looks like a mischievous flapper or a pen-and-ink drawing by EH Shepard of Christopher Robin’s bohemian godmother.
Her series If Walls Could Talk: A History of the Home begins tonight on BBC Four, but the trailers of her charmingly laying fires in period costume and peeking coquettishly from the bubbles of an Edwardian bath have already garnered her a sizeable following.
For if wild-haired Neil Oliver is the very embodiment of gallus Scottishness, striding manfully across gusty glens with bare knees, Worsely’s quintessential drawing-room Englishness is the stuff of Austen and Wodehouse.
And indeed it is the quotidian goings-on in the nation’s long-lost drawing rooms - and sculleries and bed chambers - that fascinate her, much to the chagrin of fellow historian David Starkey, who hails from the Gradgrind school of scholarship, and is far more preoccupied with dates and monarchs and geo-political alliances.
It was acid-tongued Starkey who last year famously cast aspersions at his “usually quite pretty” female peers whose works resemble “historical Mills and Boon”, to which sparky bluestocking Worsley, chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces hotly retorted: “If it wasn’t insulting and degrading to judge historians by their looks, I would point out that Dr Starkey looks like a cross owl in the pictures on his own books.”
What Starkey, who made his name with the 2001 series The Six Wives of Henry VIII on Channel Four, will make of Worsley larking about making Victorian jelly in a mob cap or re-constructing the very first flushing loo (built in 1596 for Queen Elizabeth I, it never caught on until Thomas Crapper redesigned it in 1852) can only be guessed at. But Worsley is blithely unconcerned.
“David Starkey thinks that constitutional history and political history and foreign policy are what’s important, which is true, up to a point. But these lofty matters don’t give any insight into the everyday experience of normal people,” she says.
“I’m fascinated by how people live, which is why I do so much dressing up in the series and hands-on domestic work; it’s a way of immersing yourself in their world and understanding what their priorities were - and why.”
Certainly, the four-episode series promises to be positively addictive viewing. Worsley, 37 - who proudly concedes her main claim to fame thus far was once “being stood up by Johnny Depp” - fizzes with enthusiasm and the camera loves her marvellously impish onscreen presence.
Gamine rather than glamorous, her confident debut will do nothing to assuage the Starkey-esque sniping that the schedules have been colonised by lady historians, presumably at the expense of the middle-aged men who consider it their primogeniture birthright.
“I’m just an historian who has happened to wander into television as an extension of what I do,” says Worsley. “In recent years, the BBC woke up to the fact that they weren’t using women historians and I’m lucky to have been caught in the slipstream of Amanda Vickery, Mary Beard and Bettany Hughes.”
But Worsley doesn’t belong in anyone’s slipstream. Born in Reading, the daughter of a geologist father and a website designer mother, her upper crust vowels belie her early education as she chose to go to a comprehensive “because of my communist beliefs”.
Come again? Most eleven-year-olds are more interested in boybands and sleepover parties than dialectical materialism and the means of production. Were her parents terribly staunch Left-wingers?
“My parents weren’t, but I was,” she says thoughtfully. “I suppose now you come to mention it, an eleven-year-old Marxist does sound odd, but I was terribly passionate about it at the time.”
Having graduated from Oxford with a history degree, she later went on to undertake a PhD, but her father was full of misgivings that she would ever find a job that didn’t involve cleaning lavatories.
“My brother is an engineer so a much more useful member of society,” she chuckles. But Worsley quickly embarked on a career that took her from Milton Manor House, a privately owned stately home in Oxfordshire to The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and English Heritage.
Then, in 2004 she took on her role at Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity which runs Kensington Palace State Apartments, Hampton Court Palace, the Tower of London, Kew Palace at Kew Gardens and the Banqueting House in Whitehall.
“I love working here,” she beams, all girlish dimples and rosy cheeks. “I like to confound people’s expectations of museum curators. Yes I am interested in constitutional history, political history, the history of foreign affairs, but I think you can get at those subjects through the details of daily life.
“The reason I am interested in what a particular piece of furniture looks like, and how people used it, is not just out of connoisseurship, but because if you can understand their furniture you can understand a different mental world. It gives you a way in.”
As if her day job didn’t keep her busy enough, Worsley has written several well-received books: Courtiers: The Secret History of Kensington Palace, a jaunty take on the colourful lives and loves of the bit-players in the Regency court; and Cavalier: a Tale of Passion, Chivalry and Great Houses.
But it was If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home that has provided her with a stepping stone into television. Her exploration of the history of the bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen - not just the rooms, but precisely what people did in them - from the Normans until the present day, is as enthralling as it is ambitious.
The success of the series rests on Worsley’s natural inclination to get stuck in, whether washing Tudor linen in urine or walking through a busy London street dressed in a Victorian gown. “Someone did shout 'Eff off, Little Bo Peep', but I’ve lost all my sensitivity making this programme,” she reflects, breezily.
“Lots of historians are sniffy about re-enactors. I remember meeting someone very grand while I was making the programme who said: “Oh, I see you are going over to the dark side’,” she says. “I have suffered from that thinking, too, that the documents we should be using are from archives and libraries. But you can learn a lot by recreating stuff.”
Worsley lives by the Thames in south London with her partner, the award-winning architect Mark Hines. She describes herself as having deliberately decided “not to have it all” and is “childless-by-choice” in order to continue pursuing the projects she enjoys. Her home, rather unexpectedly, is a minimalist loft-style flat.
“I need a low-maintenance home,” she says. “I’m not a hoarder; words are more important to me than things, so there are an awful lot of books.”
As for her brush with Johnny Depp, during filming of the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie at Hampton Court Palace, the star asked for an after-hours tour, a task that fell to Worsley. “I was supposed to be going to a party with Mark that evening so I phoned him up and told him I was ditching him for Johnny Depp. He said “Go on then, you complete cow” and flung the phone down.’”
So, full of remorse she made her excuses and went to the party?
“Of course not, I waited and waited but Johnny Depp never came because he was apparently too tired. So then I went to the party and claimed I preferred to be with Mark, who was, I think, a bit suspicious that I’d been stood up. Ah Johnny, if only he’d known what he was missing.”
If he tunes into BBC Four tonight, to observe Worsley hosting a candlelit tea party in a Georgian drawing room he might just find out.
* 'If Walls Could Talk' begins tonight on BBC Four at 9pm
© 2013 Lucy Worsley