Lucy Worsley: The TV historian on BBC's The First Georgians, David Starkey and why she'll never appear on Strictly Come Dancing
As she returns to TV to breathe life back into the Georgians, Lucy Worsley reveals how she proved ’em all wrong – from her father to David Starkey to her speech therapist
Ellen E Jones
Ellen is The Independent's TV critic. She writes a daily review of Last Night's TV and a weekly 'Inside TV' column for the i paper, as well as a column on general topics for the main paper most Wednesdays. Ellen is a former Hollywood correspondent and a contributing editor to Little White Lies, she's written on TV, film, lifestyle, travel and politics for publications including the Guardian, The Times, The Sunday Times, Esquire and Total Film.
Sunday 06 April 2014
We're in Lucy Worsley's office in Hampton Court Palace and, as usual, the TV historian is busy bringing the past to life. Not "the past", as in 1714 or 1727 or any of the other key dates from her forthcoming three-part BBC history programme, The First Georgians. No, she's reliving the moment, a few months back, when she first got her hands on a live firearm. "Pow!" she says, squinting through the imaginary gun sights and miming pulling the trigger. "It was a Brown Bess musket from 1790 and it had a huge flash and all this smoke. I could have killed somebody! It did give me a thrilling feeling of power."
For the past few months, she's been curating a tripartite exhibition, at Hampton Court, Kensington Palace and Kew Palace, to mark 300 years since the Prince-Elector of Hanover became King George I of England, ushering in the relative stability of Britain's Georgian era.
It is an oft-overlooked period of history, lacking the juicy scandals of the Tudors or the grand industrial achievements of the Victorians, but Worsley makes a passionate case for the gorgeous Georgians.
They do, for instance, have their own Horrible Histories song, which Worsley offers to recite from memory: "It goes 'Born to rule over you/ Georges one three four and two/ You have to do what we tell you to/ Just because our blood is blue.' And that is the popular impression of them."
Moments like these illustrate why Worsley is so good at blowing the dust off her subjects and presenting them to the public afresh. She has an instinctive feel for where history meets human interest, as evidenced by the subject of her most recent BBC series, A Very British Murder.
Not that Worsley is short of competition in the popular-history field. In the past 15 years, history books have moved up the bestseller lists, history TV has gone prime-time and historians themselves have become household names. Initially it was a trio of redoubtable middle-aged men who led the charge – David Starkey, the waspish one; Niall Ferguson, the right-wing one; and original tele-don Simon Schama. More recently this old boys' club was forced to make way for a raft of female historians including Cambridge classicist Mary Beard, Late Modern expert Amanda Vickery and Worsley herself.
"It feels like being in a nice club. It could be a bigger club, but it's a nice club to be in," says Worsley, making the pleasing admission that she knows and likes both Vickery and Beard. She doesn't say whether they sometimes meet up to drink G&Ts, shoot the breeze, and throw darts at a pictures of David Starkey's face, but let's imagine they do.
On donning costumes: 'I'm a social historian and I do think dress is political' (BBC/Silver River)
Starkey has been at the forefront of a backlash from the conservative-by-definition historian community. When, in 2012, the Oxford historian and judge of the Wolfson History prize Sir Keith Thomas publicly criticised unnamed "young historians" who sought "popularity for popularity's sake", he was reviving a debate started in 2009 when Starkey complained to the Radio Times about what he saw as a "feminised" view of history: "So many of the writers who write about [Tudor history] are women and so much of their audience is a female audience," he said. "Unhappy marriages are big box office."
He later expanded on his views, describing female historians as "usually quite pretty", while dismissing their work as "historical Mills & Boon". His comments elicited several angry ripostes, but Worsley's was characteristically mischievous: "If it wasn't insulting and degrading to judge historians by their looks," she said at the time, "I would point out that Dr Starkey looks like a cross owl."
In conversation now, Worsley has rather more nuanced views on the matter of judging a historian by her appearance. "I'm thinking, on the one hand females just do get extra levels of scrutiny about their clothes and their hair and everything, but then, as well, I'm an art historian, so I think it's OK to read an image. Sometimes it sort of fries my brain, really. I'm thinking, what's the correct way to respond to this? As a feminist and an art historian? And what's the best thing to do so that people will watch my programme as well?"
Viewers seem to think she has the balance right, judging by the fan letters and gifts scattered around her office . The impressive suite of rooms served as a "grace and favour" apartment for visiting dignitaries during Victoria's reign. Now a bust of King Henry VIII sits alongside more incongruous trinkets, such as a garden gnome and a toy dinosaur wearing a party hat.
As well as the usual queries from history buffs, Worsley regularly receives emails from people wanting to know where she bought this particular pair of shoes or that nice dress. "The people who like my programmes like real ale, they like old guns and old trains, and they also like a nice dress," she says decisively. "I always make a point of having a scene where I'm drinking some real ale."
She also buys a brand-new coat for each new television programme. This series, it's a fetching powder-blue with a large, Puritan-style collar. "I want to look like I'm approachable, friendly and jolly – not different or academic. It's wrong of me to use 'academic' as a negative thing, because it isn't, but I don't want to look like I'm a different species."
Over 18 years working for heritage organisations, nine publications and 14 television programmes, Dr Worsley has more than proved her academic credentials. In her current role as chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, she works across Kensington Palace, the Tower of London, Kew Palace, Banqueting House in Whitehall and Hampton Court Palace. Despite these grand surroundings, she's not above dressing up in silly costumes, getting in a tin bath, or shooting an 18th-century musket if it helps her better communicate a sense of the period to the public. "I am a social historian and I do think things like dress and hair and make-up and the whole history of art is political."
Worsley says: 'I would never describe myself as a professional TV presenter and I don't think you'll see me presenting on any topics other than history' (Benjamin McMahon)
The only such wacky suggestion she ever refused involved a tutu and a photoshoot for a swanky American magazine. "I felt under quite a lot of pressure to put on the tutu and I went round the back and I thought, 'Would Simon Schama put on the tutu? No, he wouldn't.' So I had to go back and tell them."
Worsley has also retained an unashamed interest in those areas of her subject that some might call "femininised". She particularly relishes the flamboyant but forgotten characters in history – often women – such as Queen Caroline, George IV's wife and "the cleverest, the funniest and the fattest queen consort we've ever had." Her favourite character in Game of Thrones, which apparently all historians watch because it's "basically the Wars of the Roses", is the elegant redhead Lady Catelyn Stark. "I'm such a cliché – she's a strong, older woman. Of course I'm going to like a character like that."
Now that Worsley is herself a TV character of sorts, she has realised the role comes with certain requirements. To that end, she recently sought advice from a speech therapist to deal with her slight impediment. "I never even noticed it until people started writing to me or mentioning it on Twitter."
In common with Jonathan Ross and England manager Roy Hodgson, Worsley has a form of rhotacism. "I worked on a series called Fit to Rule and I thought I can't just be going 'fit to wuuule' the whole time." Her speech therapist advised that the only way to unlearn this speech habit would be to say the letter "r" correctly as many times as she'd already said it incorrectly. Worsley decided that would be impractical, and besides, she's rather proud of the reason behind her idiosyncratic speaking voice: "The thing is, my tongue is really long. It's lazy because it's so long. Would you like to see how long it is?" she says before sticking it out to demonstrate.
Perhaps Worsley is also keen to hold on to these identifying features, since an itinerant childhood deprived her of any particular town to call home. She was born in 1973 in Reading, but her father's job as a geologist and glaciers expert meant there was also a formative period in Canada, before the family returned to the UK and settled briefly in Nottingham. "I would love to be able to say I'm from 'X', it would be really nice to have that sort of connection, but I guess it makes you a bit tougher to have to find new friends and have new teachers and new schools, perhaps."
Worsley exercised this strong-mindedness early when, halfway through the first year of her A-levels, she realised that Maths, Biology and Chemistry weren't the subjects for her. She switched to English, History and Geography – much to the disapproval of her scientist father. "He famously said, 'You'll be fit to clean toilets with a History degree!' So now I take a lot of pride in saying, 'Ha, Dad! Ha, ha, ha, ha!'"
She still takes an interest in the way history is taught in schools, although she's keen not to do "a Gove" and offer too much unsolicited advice. "I would always defer to the Historical Association, because I don't like it when people who aren't history teachers espouse their own theories about how history should be taught."
She also bemoans the fact that her own relatively straightforward path from secondary school to New College, Oxford to full-time career in History is no longer open to the current generation.
"I graduated in 1995 and I was able just to get a job. People can't do that any more. I really hate the way that young people have to go through this long, drawn-out process of doing work experience and internships and voluntary work. It's a shame, because it means that the people who end up working in museums are the ones with mums and dads who can support that sort of long, unpaid apprenticeship."
On 'Game of Thrones': 'Of course I'm going to like Lady Catelyn Stark' (Helen Sloane/HBO)
Worsley is proud to say that all the Historic Royal Palaces apprenticeships pay the London Living Wage. "We've got some recruitment going on at the moment," she says when I ask what she's been up to. "People think I spend my whole time reading old books, but actually I go to meetings like anybody else. Like any museum curator, I give guided tours and speak to schoolchildren and take people round the buildings and give talks in the evening."
I ask whether being on TV was part of the career plan. "Often I think, well I'm still giving my PowerPoint presentation, it's just that the picture moves and it's to more people. So, I see it as kind of an extension of something I was already doing rather than a completely different thing." She adds that there's no chance of her quitting the day job to become a full-time telly person any time soon. "I would never describe myself as a professional TV presenter and I don't think you'll see me presenting on any topics other than history. In fact, when I got married, my husband made me sign a prenuptial contract saying I would never appear on Strictly Come Dancing."
With the Strictly ban still in place, what would Mr Worsley make of the home-made fan tribute (since taken down) that I found dedicated to his wife on YouTube? It consisted of still images from her shows, slow-faded into each and set to "Loving You (Is Easy Cause You're Beautiful)" by Minnie Riperton. One commenter praised Worsley as "the thinking man's funpot". She cringes when I tell her. "What's a 'funpot'? A pot of fun? It sounds slightly obscene, doesn't it?" How does it make her feel to be described in such terms? "Well, 'thinking' is good, points for 'thinking'. Not so happy about 'man' because I would also like to be for women. And I don't think I'm a pot."
Despite the insinuations of some, and the slightly creepy devotion of others, it isn't really Worsley's blonde hair, her relative youth or even – sorry, Starkey – her gender that have made her successful. It's her playful spirit, plus a genuine enthusiasm for a subject most people left behind in Year 10 common room. These qualities combined give her a precious ability to reignite in adults the intellectual curiosity of children. One Twitter fan (who also happens to be Horace Panter, the bassist from the Specials) put it like this: "Lucy Worsley is like the cleverest girl in school… #GoLucy!"
For her part, Worsley doesn't seem to mind much how other people see her, as long as it furthers her main goal: "I see myself as the thin end of the wedge, to sneak in just a little bit of history and then, hopefully, more will follow. Y'know, they'll watch five seconds of the programme and then they'll think, 'Oh I'll watch the whole programme next time,' and then, 'Oh, I'll read the book,' and then 'I'll sign up for the evening class,' and then they'll be doing that Open University degree before they know it. That's my evil plan for world domination."
She lets out a cackle. #GoLucy.
The Glorious Georges exhibition opens on 17 April across Hampton Court, Kensington and Kew Palaces, with each palace focusing on a different George: George I at Hampton Court, George II at Kensington and George III at Kew. 'The First Georgians: the German Kings who Made Britain' will air on BBC Four in late April
What did the Georgians ever do for us?
Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in London inspired imitators in Manchester, Liverpool and Bath. As the focus was on combining entertainment and fresh air, these spaces might also be considered precursors to music festivals such as Glastonbury and theme parks such as Disneyland.
The Gentleman's Magazine, first published in 1731, is considered the first general-interest magazine. Other popular titles included London Review, Gallery of Fashion and Lady's Magazine.
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