Like father, like son

Another generation of the Snow family is set to hit our screens. Ciar Byrne talks to Dan Snow and his father Peter about their new collaboration
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Peter Snow, the wielder of the BBC's election "swingometer", has a secret passion - he is a huge military history buff. Now, together with his 25-year-old historian son, Dan, he is about to indulge his hobby in public for the first time, in a major new television series tracing eight great battles that have shaped British history.

The father and son team believes that, far from being about to burst, the history "bubble" that began with Simon Schama and David Starkey is entering a new phase of growth, thanks to advances in computer graphics which make it possible to create "photo-real" images.

"In the old days with medieval history, no one went there because there were so few visual sources and everyone did the Second World War," says Dan. "What you're going to see now, as the technology becomes more accessible and quite cheap, is that more people are going to be pumping out programmes about Agincourt."

Battlefield Britain does not set out to deliver startling revelations, but to create as comprehensive as possible an account of what Dan calls the "classic prep-school dates of British history" using state- of-the-art techniques - from Boudicca to the Battle of Britain, via Hastings, the Spanish Armada and Culloden.

Both Peter and Dan insist their relationship is not central to the series, but there is little doubt the father-and-son combination is what gives the show its spark. The collaboration came about when a BBC producer remembered a film Dan made on the Oxford rowing team, and in 2002 they were given a dummy run in a documentary to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein.

"At Alamein they didn't really bring us together apart from about three minutes, and it was everybody's favourite part of the programme," recalls Dan.

The Oxford history graduate scoffs at the idea that his father somehow wangled him the job of co-presenting and researching the programme and accompanying book. "Dad doesn't have an agent, he's not a self-seeking celebrity, he's famous for being relaxed. The idea that he would march me into the BBC, and then the BBC would say, 'Yes, OK'..."

Peter admits to having initial doubts. "Two things crossed my mind: one, 'why Dan?'; and two, 'why Dan of all people?' But the veteran quickly realised that Dan was "exceptionally suitable".

"The flash of brilliance about it is not so much, 'here's a guy with his son doing a presenting thing,' but that Dan is the age that nearly all the soldiers, sailors and airmen in these great battles were. He was able to tell the story of the front line at the same time as I was giving the overview," Peter explains.

Dan brings the experience of combat to life by hurling himself into action-man stunts - joining Wasps rugby squad to illustrate the wedge battle formation, taking part in a police shield wall, and passing out in a stunt plane as it dives.

"We argued all the time," admits Dan. "Dad still has the remnants of a 1940s prep school history education." He mocks his father for holding a "Whiggish" view of history, as one great progression towards Victorian England.

Peter, who is currently busy working on top-secret studio toys to illustrate the forthcoming US elections and the next British general election, describes the series as "the most exhilarating programme I have ever worked on".

"The obvious contrast [with what we're doing] is the Falklands war, where we simply didn't know what was going on except by courtesy of the Government," says the former Newsnight correspondent. "The enormous excitement about doing history is that you can get pretty near to what really happened."

If the BBC is willing, the Snows' next project will be to look at battles that shaped the modern world, including the Middle East conflict and the Korean War.

"I drive Dan mad sometimes, but it's been absolutely brilliant. We're a natural team," says Peter. "What has been so effective is that he's a historian, he's got the knowledge and I'm a journalist, so I enjoy telling the stories."

'Battlefield Britain' starts on Friday on BBC2 at 9pm

  • More about:
  • BBC