In the absence of the late Sir Malcolm Bradbury, whom can we safely characterise as Britain's foremost media don? Tom Paulin (Hertford College, Oxford) has the solid highbrow profile, Lisa Jardine (Queen Mary and Westfield College, London) has the broadsheet reputation, and there has been a spirited late challenge from Birkbeck's ubiquitous AC Grayling. Yet by far the most successful performer in this glitzy but exhausting medium, delight of both the set-tethered TV audience and the browsers of bookshop history shelves, is the engagingly self-styled "academic thug", David Starkey.
Strictly speaking, to mark down the Tudor bruiser as a media don is a technical inaccuracy. Dr Starkey no longer teaches professionally, and the Cambridge quadrangles and the senior common room of the LSE have yielded up to "private research" and solitary archival jaunts. Unlike the majority of academics who opt to mix it in the world of popular entertainment, Starkey has managed to extend his reputation in line with his ratings. Elizabeth R, which accompanied last year's four-part Channel 4 series, attracted respectful reviews along with its thousands of purchasers. It is a safe bet that The Six Wives of Henry VIII, the forthcoming write-up of his new six-parter which starts this week, will do the same. Suddenly Tudor government, previously thought to be one of the duller nooks of early modern history, is not just fashionable, but sexy.
As, by and large, is Starkey himself. Openly gay, stupendously cross (his early radio performances had him splashed across the tabloids), unrepentantly right-wing, he represents the coming together of several highly respectable archetypes not often found in the same personality. We have had plenty of waspish Tory academics before, but rarely those who turned incandescent on the airwaves or lived with their male partners in north London bliss. Or, for that matter, turned in viewing figures ahead of Ali G.
The rise of this small-screen celebrity began 56 years ago in Cumbria. Raised in Kendal, the son of a metal-turner and a former cotton operative, the young Starkey had an "isolated" childhood in which physical deformity (he was born with club feet, later surgically corrected) and maternal influence loomed large. For a bright, academically inclined teenager, the path from the local grammar school could lead only south, in this case to Cambridge, where he took a first in history and became a protégé of the leading Tudor historian of the age, Professor Geoffrey Elton. Starkey quickly decided that Elton's view of history was sharply opposed to his own. Elton's magisterial analyses of Tudor government rested on ideas of bureaucratic improvement. Starkey, on the other hand, was a personality man, seduced by the thought of titanic egos in conflict, ante-room punch-ups and backstairs intrigue. His first book, The Reign of Henry VIII: politics and personalities, was among other things a spectacular debunking of the Elton line. Sir Geoffrey is supposed to have taken this intellectual throwing over very hard.
At this point Starkey was undoubtedly a "controversial" historian. At the same time his reputation, and his influence, did not extend much beyond a handful of Oxbridge common rooms. There had been an early foray into TV-country with This Land of England (1985), but the big break came in 1992 when he joined the panel of Radio 4's The Moral Maze. It is not an exaggeration to say that from this moment Starkey was made. He could be, in fact was positively encouraged to be, as rude as he liked to anyone he wanted. Guests, not all of whom took this treatment lying down, sometimes felt that they had been singled out as the luckless victims of his asperity. The programme swiftly redefined itself as a vehicle for the public persona he had adopted: tough, offensive, impervious to argument or rebuke. Simply being in a radio studio with Starkey in the mid-1990s could be a chastening experience. A novelist lured on to a programme examining standards in the advertising industry recalls that, "As soon as you sat down it was obvious that Starkey was just spoiling for a fight. Worse, he wasn't at all interested in the subject under discussion – he just wanted to domineer. The only thing to do was to shout back." Starkey, however, had a habit of shouting louder. He emerged with the title of "the rudest man in Britain" (the Daily Mail) and a string of lucrative TV engagements.
Like Simon Schama, with whom he enjoys ambivalent relations, Starkey is a populariser on the grand scale. Nothing wrong with that, but how good a historian is he? One might assume that fellow-workers at the professional coal-face would turn horribly fastidious at the sight of this "private scholar" zealously uncovering dirty linen from the Tudor divorce courts. In fact, early modern historians tend to be broadly sympathetic: "very good at coming up with ideas, but with a tendency to push them too far"; "bursts of archive work which produce genuine insights" are some specimen comments. His treatment of the depositions of Thomas, Lord Seymour of Sudeley – a key element of Elizabeth R – is thought to display the strengths and weaknesses of this "soap-opera history" in about equal parts: an eye-catching case of sexual harassment of the young queen based on indisputable archive evidence but carefully picked out and burnished up by the historian's eager fingers.
It would be a very sober professional historian who didn't perform this sleight of hand once in a while. Rather less defensible, perhaps, is Starkey's historical relativism. To enter the Tudor court as recreated in his brisk and occasionally winsome prose is to enter a world which seems remarkably like our own. According to Starkey's recent pronouncements, the upper reaches of the Henrician hierarchy were not so very different from today's New Labour establishment. Catherine of Aragon was "the Diana of her time", while Catherine Howard was "Fergie. A pure good-time girl. You see her sort around every bar in Holborn at six o'clock." This is, of course, complete nonsense. The point about past time is that it is not like now, the people in it were not our contemporaries in everything but age, and to pretend that they were is to devalue both them and us. The past, it could be argued, ought to have a life of its own and not be used as a catchpenny exercise in attracting television viewers. There is a suspicion, too, that the author of Revolutions Reassessed: Revisions in the History of Tudor Government and Administration knows it is nonsense, a trick he has to turn in order to maintain his position.
The very same charge can be levelled against his public persona. The hauteur, the frosty put-downs, the dramatic performances – all these, experienced Starkey-watchers maintain, are simply appropriate garments to be put on along with the interviewer-friendly wardrobe of chinos and tortoiseshell specs. Former graduate students from Cambridge and the LSE remember him as unfailingly helpful and sympathetic, if hard to track down. Fellow historians report that, away from the microphone stand, he is charm personified. The house which he shares with his long-term partner, James Brown, is apparently a model of all-male domesticity.
The Six Wives of Henry VIII will, inevitably, be a huge success: provocative, intimate (actors are being used to dramatise certain scenes), suffused with bustling personalities and contending wills. It will also present a view of history that is both partial and all-too-neatly tuned to the expectations of its audience. The suspicion remains that, just as much as Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and the rest of the queue to the Tudor execution block, Starkey is a victim himself – in this case of the medium in which he has chosen to operate.
'The Six Wives of Henry VIII' starts tomorrow on Channel 4 at 9pmReuse content