As an authority on the sex life of Queen Victoria...

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
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The Independent Online
WHEN, as so often happens, admirers approach me, I attempt to set them at their ease. "Do ask me one question about myself - but only one! I am a busy man," I tell them, genially. Needless to say, they then always ask me the same question. "Arnold," they say, "we know you as a man of letters, a raconteur, a witty and waspish television panellist, an influential political theorist, an award-winning columnist, a Royal adviser and a man about town, but tell us this: which of these many hats were you wearing when first you rose to prominence?"

And the answer to this brain-teaser is, of course, that I was originally a common-or-garden historian, a senior Professor of History at one of our oldest universities. I had already penned a number of well-considered historical biographies, among them learned tomes on Queen Victoria and Julius Caesar, when one day, quite out of the blue, I was approached by the old Daily Express with the request that I write 600 words. "I am a busy man," I told them, "and an historian of intellectual bottom. What, pray, is the subject upon which you wish me to expound?"

They informed me that the subject was the sex life of Queen Victoria: they would pay me the then princely sum of pounds 125.

"Quite out of the question," I riposted with all the contempt I could muster. "Do you not realise I am a Fellow of All Souls?"

"pounds 200" they replied. Six hundred words were delivered to their door the very next day. In the final paragraph I suggested that the good lady may well have been a member of the lesbian persuasion, for which they paid me an extra pounds 25.

My career as a media historian was launched. Before long I was regularly approached by newspapers and magazines to offer the expert historian's view of current affairs. Thus, when Miss Sandy Shaw won the 1967 Eurovision Song Contest, I wrote a learned essay for the Evening Standard placing this victory in its proper historical perspective, alongside Waterloo and Agincourt.

Needless to say, my stuffier colleagues, soaked in jealousy, proved as sniffy as could be. But I argued that it is the proper job of the serious historian to bring history in all its vivid colour into the drab living- rooms of ordinary folk. In 1969 alone, I penned no less than 25 learned articles for what was then still Fleet Street, many of them raising very pertinent and far-reaching questions such as, "Was Good Queen Bess a Nympho?", "Was Julius Caesar a Woman?" and "Was King George V a German Spy?"

Television beckoned, as it so often does. Before the 1970s were out, I had been elected "TV Historian of the Year" by the readers of TV Times magazine for three years in a row. They were kind enough to tell me that I had injected new verve into my subject: by dressing up as Queen Victoria and employing TV heart-throb Ronald Allen as John Brown, I was making history come alive.

Inevitably, a number of my colleagues attempted to muscle in on my territory, but with lamentable results. My old friend and quaffing partner Hugh Trevor- Roper, for instance, came a terrible cropper when he was persuaded to take a cameo role in On The Buses as a disgruntled customer on Mr Reg Varney's double-decker bus. Alas, the viewers never took to him - research suggested they found him altogether too aloof and hoity-toity - and he was dropped after only one episode. Likewise poor old A.L. Rowse: in early 1973, he had been pencilled in as a holiday replacement for Bob Monkhouse on the popular television series The Golden Shot, but in rehearsal he had begun bitterly chastising his veteran co-host Bernie the Bolt for his poor grasp of the role of the crossbow in the early Tudor period. Rather than lose Bernie, the producers dropped A.L., who then had to content himself with a small, non-speaking role in All Creatures Great and Small, as a woodland vole with a broken leg.

But where so many of my colleagues have come a cropper, I am delighted to see my dear friend Dr David Starkey soar to success. Have you managed to catch his programmes on King Henry VIII? Nor me, but they are "both informative and entertaining" and "popular history at its very best", or so I am told by no less an authority than Dr Starkey. I particularly warm to Starkey enacting the execution of Anne Boleyn by parading naked around an Ann Summers "Sex Shop" (dread outlet!), wearing nothing but a surplus of mascara and a supernumerary bosom. This truly is history in the raw, and Dr Starkey hereby reveals himself a worthy successor not only to Professor Kenneth Williams but also to Dr Sidney James. Hurrah!