David Starkey: My life in media

I hope I'm making history reasonably sexy. I think it's brilliant getting history out of the box and not thinking you have to be a teacher.


David Starkey, 62, is a historian and television presenter. After a career at Cambridge and the London School of Economics he reinvented himself as a controversial media academic with his television series Elizabeth and, most recently, Monarchy. He grew up in Cumbria and lives with his partner of 14 years, the publisher James Brown, in London and Kent. He was awarded the CBE earlier this year.

What inspired you to embark on a career in the media?

A former student of mine went into television and his first job was to find a historian to present a sort of reality-TV show. His response was that all historians are boring, but with his back against the wall he was forced to say, "Oh, I suppose David Starkey was the least boring."

When you were 15 years old which newspaper did your family get, and did you read it?

My earliest memories are of the old Manchester Guardian. One of the most interesting parts was written by a young Michael Frayn, and the vividness of the writing, the extraordinarily wide range of things he was interested in and the ability to make unexpected connections were very powerful influences on me. The local paper was The Westmorland Gazette. All I remember about that was the convoluted gossip, the type of the masthead and the density of the marriages and deaths page.

And what were your favourite TV and radio programmes?

The first time I saw television was the coronation, and we went round to watch it on a neighbour's set. I can still remember the moment vividly: I was eight, and both the medium and ceremony made an extraordinary impression on me. But my mother was absolutely clear that television was the work of the devil and a distraction. The two greatest influences on me were the BBC Home Service and Third Programme (Radio 4's predecessors) so my upbringing was really Reithian. I hate speech broadcast now. I suppose I see them as a rival.

Describe your job.

I'm a writer and a broadcaster and a historian and I work in two principle media: books and television. A lot of people see them as very different but I think the overlap is very great.

What's the first media you turn to in the mornings?

I'm still very much old-medium: I like a newspaper over breakfast.

Do you consult any media sources during the day?

I find The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography extraordinarily useful and, with certain reservations, Wikipedia. If I'm doing a period of history that isn't my own, the ODNP, while rather pedestrian, does offer you a great summary guide to the reference material.

What is the best thing about your job?

Variety. I've always been someone who bores easily. My mother used to refer to me as monkey-minded. The change from being a regular academic to the world I'm in now has been wonderfully liberating. It's given me more time, and the irony is I can do much more historical work than when I was in full-time employment at a university: no committees, no essays to mark, and you have the money to research what you want, not what some guardian body can be persuaded to pay you to research.

And the worst?

A bad director. There's a particular type of director, and I think the BBC encourages them, who sees him- or herself as the real creator of a programme rather than a technician who is putting somebody's else's views on TV. The great Janice Hadlow, who was my mentor much of my time at Channel 4, had the latter view. Most of them labour under the creative delusions that they are auteurs. I think they've seen too many French films.

How do you feel you influence the media?

I hope I'm making history reasonably sexy. Bearing in mind that the arts quite wrongly has been seen as a female preserve, I'm quite excited when boys approach me at sixth-form lectures asking how they can become a television presenter. I think it's brilliant getting history out of the box and not thinking you have to be a teacher.

What's the proudest achievement in your working life?

The Elizabeth television series and the Elizabeth book. The book has had quite extraordinary sales. At the time we thought it was a footnote to the series, yet it sold hundreds of thousands.

And what's your most embarrassing moment?

I was comprehensively and justifiably humiliated by a pundit back in the days of Talk Radio. I was interviewing Denis Healey and I mistakenly thought that he had become an amiable old buffer who would engage in amusing conversation, and he tore me limb from limb. I laugh about it now, but I didn't feel like laughing about it at the time.

What is your Sunday paper? And do you have a favourite magazine?

I'm a complete bore and I read The Sunday Times. I get Private Eye but I'll be truthful I don't read it. The cartoons are infinitely the best thing in there.

Name the one career ambition you want to realise before you retire?

My career has been totally unplanned. It has just been jumping at opportunities. One has to hope more will present themselves.

What would you do if you didn't work in the media?

If the media decides it is bored of me, I would go back to being a dreary historian, but I would just write books.

Who in the media do you most admire and why?

Matthew Parris. He has weight and clarity and he's a great writer.

The CV

1970: Begins academic career at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, of which he is now a fellow

1972: Moves to LSE, where he teaches until 1998

1985: Writes and presents first television series, 'The Land of England'

1992: Joins BBC Radio 4 as a panellist on 'The Moral Maze'

1995: Spends three years at the helm of 'Starkey on Saturday' then 'Starkey on Sunday' on Talk Radio

1998: 'Henry VIII' is broadcast on Channel 4

2000: 'Elizabeth', Starkey's proudest achievement, airs

2001: 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII'

2002: 'The Unknown Tudors'

2004: The first instalment of the multi-series 'Monarchy' is broadcast

2007: Series 4 aired earlier this year and the book and DVD are now available

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