'The palace curator likes to get down and dirty bringing history to life on TV',
Giles Hattersley's interview in the News Review, The Sunday Times, 8 April 2012.
Lucy Worsley tips up at a restaurant near London’s South Bank looking exactly as you would imagine: chirpy, quick-witted, with a face like a Bennet sister and trailing several suitcases full of period costumes. ‘Hello’, the historian says, cheerily. ‘I’ve just had a day of being a 17th-century yeoman’s housewife’.
Well, of course she has. Worsley has been filming her latest television programme on Restoration women, so, as per, she also rode a horse, got trussed up like a witch and sported a scold’s bridle. ‘Horrible … who wore it before?’ Odd to think that this diminutive 38-year old has a serious day job as chief curator of historical palaces.
It has been a busy few weeks. She has just redone the jewel room at the Tower of London, before unveiling the seven-year £12m revamp of Kensington Palace. Somehow she also found time to appear on Our Food last week, a new television programme celebrating British produce, where she stole the show ‘de-gassing’ turkeys the old-fashion way (Google it for a giggle).
It is all part of winning schtick. In the past couple of years Worsley seems to have wrestled history TV from being po-faced (David Starkey) or pure froth (The 1900 House). Landing somewhere in the middle, she loves a stunt, getting down and dirty with the day-to-day of have we used to live.
‘I don’t mind losing my dignity’, she says, her voice less crazily posh than on the box. To that end she has washed her clothes in urine, slept in tiny medieval beds and even done Henry VIII’s weekly shop (she could barely get the ale-laden trolley around the supermarket).
Some have not warmed to her. When she was dressed in full period regalia, traipsing through London, a passer-by once yelled ‘F*** off, Little Bo Peep’. Predictably others – such as Starkey – have sniffed. He branded her approach ‘historical Mills and Boon’, but it hasn’t put her off. ‘I am a believer that you can learn a lot form tiny bits of detritus about people’s lives’, she says.
Many agree and fans are multiplying. Could she be entering Gareth Malone territory? She has that allure of the overgrown undergrad, the sort to elicit shy glances from clever boys in the Bodleian. One admirer summed up feelings when he blogged: ‘I don’t think I’m alone in finding myself a little in love with the wonderful Lucy and her jolly hockey sticks demeanour’. She admits she has had ‘several amusing marriage proposals’.
All this is vanilla, though, next to her latest project. Last week saw the opening of her, and the curator Brett Dolman’s, new exhibition at Hampton Court Palace: ‘The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned’. Exploring the saucier side of the late Stuart court – where mistresses such as Barbara Villiers and Nell Gwynn ruled hearts and loins – it’s enough to make Ashley Cole blush.
How Charles II held his kingdom together post-Cromwell, what with his exhaustive schedule of threesomes and looming syphilis, is anyone’s guess. What’s so canny about Dolman’s and Worsley’s take is that through portraiture and knick-knacks the focus is placed on the mistresses, whom she refuses to write off as mere wily sluts.
‘Women used their brains and their bodies to succeed’, she says. ‘The ideal of femininity is pretty passive in the 17th century, but what we see at the court of Charles II for the first time is the mistresses taking centre stage. They had influence. Real political influence. Barbara Villiers – who was top mistresses for ages – ended up with Hampton Court Palace. That’s her retirement home. She gets financial security, a title for her son and she is unfaithful to the king himself. She has the confidence to do that. Amazingly impressive’.
Worsley is compelling in full steam, all clever half-smiles and academic in-jokes. You might not guess that the crinoline cutie hails from an unlikely locale: Reading. (‘Not great, but it could have been Slough,’ she says in her online biog.) Her father, a geologist, is retired emeritus professor at Reading University, but her blue-stocking yearnings did not go unquestioned. Apparently history was small beer in the brainy Worsley household, an academic frippery unlikely to win one a job in the real world.
‘My dad is a scientist’, she says. ‘He believes it’s really important to try and stop global warming and cure cancer – as it is – and I respect him for that’. She tried to toe the line, but managed only a term of A-level sciences before switching to her true love. She won a place to read history at New College, Oxford, although she got chucked out for bad behaviour and failed her degree. I jest. Obviously, she fot a first and one imagines she was a don’s delight.
After a starter job on the stately home circuit, feeding llamas and shushing school pupils at Milton Manor in Oxfordshire, she followed it up with a doctorate in art history at Sussex.
So far, so jolly. But her career trajectory since then suggests there is something of the steel pixie about Worsley. In 1997 she joined English Heritage, rising quickly to the rank of inspector of ancient monuments and historic buildings. In 2003, at the grand old age of 29, she bagged her current job at the historic palaces.
Clearly, brilliance played its part. But forgive the sweeping stereotype, I say, isn’t your profession rather dominated by crusty old men? Was it tough getting the top job so young? ‘Well, I interviewed’, she says, simply. Did she ever face ageism or sexism in the heritage biz? If she has, she hasn’t noticed – or isn’t telling.
‘I’m a child of the 1970s. My mother brought me up to think I could do anything I wanted’. Part of this has meant ‘self-electing’ not to have children, as she is joyously in thrall to her work. Although her home with her boyfriend –Mark Hines, an award-winning architect – is not what you might envisage. She lives in a sleek, modern apartment on London’s riverside, a necessary antidote to all those sooty palaces.
Her worlds can sometimes collide, such as when she tried using ground-up cuttlefish bones as toothpaste for a television programme. ‘The researcher left it with my doorman’, she says, laughing. ‘He called up and said, ‘A gentleman has delivered a bag of white powder for you’. I had to quickly explain that it was only for my teeth’.
She is not averse to dipping into her history books in the kitchen, however: ‘Last week I made some of Elizabeth Dysart’s elixir. She was said to be the lover of Oliver Cromwell, while at the same time working as a spy for the exiled Charles II. She kept a good recipe book, including this all-purpose curative’.
So Worsley, in her trendy urban kitchen, merrily cooked up hyssop, cloves, aniseed and masses of brandy, as you do. How was it “Fabulous’, she says. ‘It would have brought the dead back to life’.
Normally she is more of a mojito girl, despite the conception that she ‘has tea with the Queen every day’. If not every day, how often? ‘I’ve never had tea with her, but I’ve met her a few times’. And what about Kate and Wills, her future tenants at Kensington Palace, has she met them? ‘Maybe’. Nice guys? ‘Maybe’, she says, smiling.
How are you getting on with Starkey these days? This question prompts several seconds of silence. ‘I can’t remember when I last saw him’, she says, eventually, ‘but if he were to walk in now we’d have a nice chat’. Yeah, right.
This Starkey tiff touches on Worsley’s one problem – one that is arguably her greatest virtue, too. She is an unapologetic populist. Is it true she gave a talk to the National Trust saying she wanted history to be as big as The X Factor?
‘That is genuinely what I would like to see. Though when I said that, one of my fellow curators came and told me off. He said ‘History is as popular as The X Factor – 13m people watch it and there are at least 13m people already interested in history in this country’.
A fair point, but Worlsey thinks more pizzazz is needed. Could she be the woman to provide it? With two more shows for the BBC already lined up, the signs look good. She is clearly thrilled by her ascent – in a demure sort of way, of course.
‘I am a shy show-off’, she says, nailing her appeal. It’s a tantalizing mix.
Our Food continues on BBC2 on Wednesday at 8pm.
© 2013 Lucy Worsley