I was surprised recently to find myself being attacked by my fellow historian, Alison Light, on Radio 4’s Today programme.
She accused me of ‘cheapening history’ by ‘dressing up in bonnets and climbing in and out of carriages’ (as I did, with gusto, in my recent BBC series Elegance and Decadence, The Age of the Regency). Instead of having fun with social history, I should apparently have been exploring big, serious ideas.
She also argued that there’s too much history on the box which I find staggering from a professional historian. It’s true that there’s a huge variety of topics and styles available but how this diverse output can be seen as wrong is beyond me.
In fact I believe that this a golden age for history on TV – from the presenters to the formats to the shows themselves. Never have we had so many good things to watch. The BBC has upended the idea that TV historians are white males gesticulating in battlefields. Marvellous presenters like Amanda Vickery (‘At Home With The Georgians’) and Mary Beard (‘Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town’) are now regulars on the box.
History on TV today isn’t all straightforward presenter-led or talking-heads stuff either. There’s historical drama like Downton, The Crimson Petal and the White and Upstairs Downstairs. There are clever formats like ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, while on Channel 4 Tony Robinson blew up Blitz Street with explosives. In my own BBC series Elegance and Decadence, and in If Walls Could Talk, I enjoyed trying on the clothes, handling the objects, and getting to grips with the nitty-gritty, dirty detail of the past.
Personally I have absolutely no sense that there’s ‘too much’ history on television, and people don’t necessarily realise that different audiences want different things, including me dressing up!
I’ve seen a programme from the 1950s in which the granddaddy of TV historians, the Oxford don AJP Taylor, magnificently stepped onto a stage and simply started to speak about Lenin. There were no special effects or graphics. Indeed, he had no pictures at all: just an audience and his big brain.
It was mesmerising. But while Taylor’s single voice skilfully weaving an argument might win over historians like me and have been right for TV viewers 60 years ago, now it just wouldn’t work.
But why is history so popular right now? I believe one reason is that in troubling times we look to the past for reassurance and guidance. We see that terrible things have happened before, and people have got through it. Also there’s the sheer pleasure of losing oneself in a lost age.
And interest is not confined to the TV. At the Historic Royal Palaces, such as the Tower Of London, where I work as a curator, we’re experiencing record visitor figures.
Because I think my ‘ridiculous’ bonnet is, in some small way, helping fuel this appetite for history, I’m not going to hang it up just yet.
Lucy Worsley (www.lucyworsley.com) is the Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces and a BBC presenter