Open Eye: A lay view of history

'Seven Ages of Britain' began on BBC1 on Sunday. Yvonne Cook talks to presenter, David Dimbleby


The novelty of Seven Ages of Britain is that it tells the story of each historical period through the objects it produced. What different insights do you get from this approach?

The objects are chosen because they bring the past alive, and talking about them, enthusing about them, handling them, looking at them, is a vivid way to bring the past alive. It's not an illustrated history - the objects make it. Normally on television, you start by writing the history and then you illustrate it as best you can, with computer-generated images, or sometimes by just standing in front of a camera and talking. With this series, you take the objects and you enjoy them, you enthuse over them as a presenter, and you use them to explain what it tells you about life at the time.

Has it changed your view of history?

It has, I suppose, in a way. I'm not a historian by training: I read philosophy and politics at university, so my view of history is not a historian's view. What it does is to plunge me back into the past and make me feel almost that I belong to the period I'm talking about, that I'm immersed in it. It is a very layman's view of history - deliberately so, really.

The first programme has the Sutton Hoo treasure, and the last one has Damien Hirst and the Austin 7. Would you say history has gone from the sublime to the ridiculous?

No, I wouldn't at all. The things that are left from the early period are the sublime, because they are the most precious. But the Austin 7 is to me an object of great beauty, and is also seminal because it marks the opening of opportunity to the working class to travel independently, to have a proper motor car at the same price as a motorbike and sidecar. So it's important and it tells you something about the culture and the civilisation. There are other objects that have the same effect: Henry VIII's armour, for instance, or the Cheapside hoard, a huge box full of jewels worth several million pounds, now in the Museum of London, found by a builder in Cheapside in the last century.

Are all the objects well known?

Funnily enough, they aren't. Even King Charles' shirt, that he wore at his execution, is hidden away in a box in the Museum of London.

Was it a privilege to be able to handle these objects?

It was a huge privilege. And enjoyable, too. But the privilege of being able to open and handle and touch books, say - sometimes with gloves - is a first part of the energy and enthusiasm you can put into talking about things. If you see them as they are seen in a museum, behind glass, they remain dark, they are not alive for me in the same way.

You've done two previous BBC1 series with historical themes: A Picture of Britain (with The Open University) and How we built Britain. Is there any connection?

I suppose that they do form, in a way, a kind of informal trilogy of programmes, one about the discovery of landscape and its effect on the British psyche, one about power structures and how we came to build the buildings we did, and now one about the influence of art and what it tells us about the past. But they weren't designed like this - one followed another depending on the success of the previous one.

I've always been quite interested in social history and political history. I made, way back - actually the best work I ever did, I think - a series called The White Tribe of Africa, about the history of the Afrikaner people and how apartheid came about. And then I made another series called An Ocean Apart, which was a history of the relations between Britain and America from the First World War to the present day. But then years passed before they asked me to do another.

It all seems a long way from Question Time, which is the series you're probably best known for. Which do you prefer?

I wish I knew, because then I could decide which to do. They play to different pleasures. I love the adrenalin rush of Question Time, and the excitement of politics, and we've had an amazing year with various things - Nick Griffin and the expenses scandal, and this and that. That's very exciting and it gets you out of bed in the morning. On the other hand, these other ones are hugely enjoyable to do, there's a kind of serious pleasure in being able to see all these objects or go to the buildings or see the paintings. But it's completely exhausting doing both together - they're both very hard taskmasters.

Anything else we should know about Seven of Ages of Britain?

I think I should say that, while it's all about making things popular and accessible, it's also got the rigour of The Open University behind it, and of other curators and historians. We're very grateful for that, because it allows me the freedom to say what I want to say, knowing that they'll check that it's within the bounds of accuracy and not just invented off the top of my head.

Open Eye is the monthly bulletin of The Open University community

Editor: Yvonne Cook

E-mail: open-eye@open.ac.uk

Address: Open Eye,
Communications,
The Open University
Milton Keynes
MK7 6AA

For OU courses information, call 0845 300 6090; or see open.ac.uk/courses. The Open University (OU) is the UK’s only university dedicated to distance learning. More than 2 million people have studied a course with The Open University.

News
people And here is why...
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran performs at his Amazon Front Row event on Tuesday 30 September
musicHe spotted PM at private gig
News
Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167
newsSouth Korean reports suggest rumours of a coup were unfounded
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
books(and not a Buzzfeed article in sight)
Arts and Entertainment
Mystery man: Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in '‘Gone Girl'
films... by the director David Fincher
Life and Style
stoptober... when the patch, gum and cold turkey had all failed
Travel
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Welsh Year 6 Teacher required in Barry

£100 - £110 per day + Plus travel scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job:...

Welsh Teacher Year 2 required in Caerphilly

£100 - £105 per day + plus Travel Scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job:...

Year 4 Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to work in ...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?