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The People Speak: History as told by the stars

Colin Firth is heading a group of actors and actresses dramatising key moments in Britain's past. He tells James Rampton why it will enthral a new generation

For the actor Colin Firth, history lessons at school were "abject misery." Looking back in anguish, he sighs that they were all about "crop rotation, irrigation and the Davy lamp".

Firth continues: "Looking at diagrams of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's bridges is not what you want when you're 14. At that age, all you want to do is play games, listen to music and watch movies. You learn more about the real stories of our country from those forbidden pleasures. I learnt more about history from John Lennon and Bob Dylan than I ever did from a lesson about the three-field system."

Which is why Firth was drawn to The People Speak. A documentary project inspired by the American historian Howard Zinn and developed by the writer and academic Anthony Arnove, The People Speak presents history as told by those who do not appear in the history books. The project will take its British bow with a programme on History this Sunday.

Sitting with Arnove in a London private members' club, Firth colours in the background. The 50-year-old actor says the programme will tap into the great British tradition of non-conformity. "Protest, dissent, civil disobedience, rebellion, call it what you will," he says. "We've done it for 700 years."

For the British version of The People Speak, of which The Independent is a media partner, Firth and Arnove have directed a group of esteemed performers that includes Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Ben Kingsley, Keira Knightley, Juliet Stevenson, Rupert Everett, Colin Salmon, Saffron Burrows, Kelly Macdonald, Noel Clarke, Mark Strong, Joss Stone, Benjamin Zephaniah, Omid Djalili, Tom Robinson and the Independent columnist Mark Steel.

At a recorded performance at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London last month, the cast read out speeches by a range of people, from an obscure 15th-century poet, railing against the iniquities of the Hundred Years War, to an anonymous 21st-century asylum seeker, protesting about unjust treatment.

"The idea was simple," Firth says. "Take the most impassioned speeches about the fight for what is right and bring them to life for a new generation. The reason why it's so powerful is because it's about everything that matters to us: love and life, sex and death, justice and freedom. We've found some amazing speeches from the most unlikely places, British voices that have been ignored for centuries because history is a tale often told by the winners."

The participants also read some classic tracts, such as Bertrand Russell's tetter to The Nation magazine, of 12 August 1914, which argues against participation in the First World War; a stirring Emmeline Pankhurst speech in support of the Suffragettes, from 1913; Oscar Wilde's beautiful explanation of the phrase "the love that dare not speak its name", delivered from the dock at the Old Bailey in 1895; and a brilliant dissection of the British class system from the 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Zephaniah says: "I hated history at school. It was basically what queen slept with what king and what baby they had and who they ruled and who they killed. Then I realised there was another history, the history of people struggling to survive, struggling against their masters, struggling to take control of their lives. Which is why I think a project like this is really important."

The People Speak grew out of A People's History of the United States, a book written in 1980 by Zinn, who died in January. The book has been mentioned in Good Will Hunting, The Simpsons and The Sopranos and it was championed by the actor Matt Damon. With Arnove, Chris Moore and Josh Brolin he co-produced the original version of The People Speak, which was broadcast in the US last December.

Firth emphasises Zinn's influence: "Howard said, 'It's not about the voices of the people in the White House, it's about the voices of the people who are picketing the White House. Those are the people who don't necessarily get recorded in history.'"

Arnove, who with Zinn wrote Voices of a People's History of the United States, says: "Howard said that at grad school he was learning more about history from Woody Guthrie than from the textbooks. That was the turning point. He said: 'Why am I being taught this version of history? What else have I not been taught?' That's when he went outside the classroom and started questioning and developing a whole new understanding of history. He realised that popular voices were crucial to our understanding of history.

"People feel alienated from history because in schools it's always taught 'top-down'. In class, you're taught that history is made by great men – generals, politicians and presidents. Ordinary people don't enter that story. But The People's History of the United States has changed all that. Howard wrote history from the bottom up.

"When you see history that way, suddenly you realise that it has drama and high stakes. You understand history is something ordinary people can change and influence if they work together to challenge authority. Once you start thinking about it that way, you can see why history matters so much. The way we view history determines how we view the present and the future."

Many of the voices in The People Speak will chime with today's audience. Arnove says: "Thomas Hoccleve's great pacifist poem, 'An Appeal for Peace with France', is so current. It was written in 1412 but it could have been written yesterday. With all the pieces we've chosen, we're interested in how they speak to us today."

The producers see their show as a rallying cry for democracy. Arnove says: "The tagline in America was 'Democracy is not a spectator sport'. The same idea applies here."

Firth says: "I want this to be a reminder that our freedoms are in our own hands and that they can be lost far more easily than they were won. Civil liberties were severely damaged under New Labour. The idea was that if you shock people enough, they'll be all too ready to give up those liberties in favour of what they perceive as security. That's why we're one of the most camera-surveyed countries in the world and have accepted biometric passports and DNA databases. Freedom has to be vigilantly maintained. We must never forget that a lot of people sacrificed their lives to win it."

Firth, the star of Pride and Prejudice and A Single Man, has taken almost a year off acting to concentrate on this project. He acknowledges that The People Speak cannot cover every aspect of seven centuries of dissent. "When people watch this, I'm sure there'll be a lot of indignation. 'How could you miss out William Wilberforce? Why nothing about animal rights? Why not more on gay and women's rights?' But we welcome that indignation about what's missing. We want to make this the first of many – this is just a taster menu. Join us and do your own thing. We don't own this material. It's there to be found. That's part of the purpose of this – to throw down the gauntlet and create a new history curriculum."

Arnove says: "We hope this will inspire people to do their own digging and look around for the issues they care about. We're more interested in inspiring people than lecturing them about dates and facts."

Versions of The People Speak are being planned in Australia, South Africa, Germany and France. It is not meant to be didactic.

"I don't want people to learn anything," Firth says. "That's what we're trying to get away from. I'm more interested in people being invigorated. I'm not into messages – the closest I'd get is to say that our freedoms don't sit with us by divine right. They only exist if we take them forward. Democracy is not a state, it's an action. It only exists if we participate in it. I have a political persuasion but I'm not trying to force that home. I'd rather campaign for people to vote at all rather than to vote for a particular party. I'm not trying to drum in a polemic. I'm just trying to excite people the way I was excited when I first saw The People Speak."

Mark Steel, however, thinks the project has something important to say about dissent. "Rulers don't get everything their own way because there is this mass of the population who from time to time get very cross about things," he says. "This is a celebration of those people. And, crucially, it's a reminder to people now to say, 'Don't just sit and moan at the telly. Do something! It might not work, but it's better than doing nothing!'"

Firth says: "The People Speak has to be entertaining. You can't just tick boxes. You have to find material that ignites people. Otherwise people will think, 'This is just as boring as history was at school!'"

Heaven forbid.

The People Speak goes out on History at 9pm on Sunday