Dan Snow: History boy

Dan Snow, son of Peter Snow, has stepped out of his father’s shadow to become the BBC’s latest highbrow heart-throb. Here, he talks to Sophie Morris about the future of history, the complications of family life and why he is a terrible boyfriend

Saturday 26 July 2008 00:00 BST
(Portrait by Eva Vermandel)

'History is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to anyone on this planet!" enthuses the BBC's hotshot history boffin Dan Snow in his west London home. The unstudied messiness of the flat – books bought on a recent research trip to Canada trail across the floor as if they've been used for a super-sized game of dominoes, and the hallway is crammed full of bags and coats that could be either coming or going – is excused by the fact Dan has spent only about three nights here over the past month. It looks as if the place has been ransacked, or at least is inhabited by students. Those rare nights at home have been wedged in between filming commitments for last week's BBC2 documentary on the Emperor Hadrian, dashing around the country for The One Show and time spent writing his first serious history tome.

Dan loyally declares that we are living in a "Golden Age" of television, but it is history that really oils his wheels. Leaning back on a large sofa in his living room, any mention of the "h" word has the effect of a starting pistol on his relaxed poise. No wonder: the opportunities afforded by his burgeoning career feed his history habit far better than any weekend trips to country castles. He visited seven countries for the Hadrian shoot and has been grubbing around various archives in Canada and Europe for book research. He reported from the Falklands on the 25th anniversary of the war there, arranged a flight over London in a B-17 for the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and – he gasps the next bit as if he has just discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun – "for a piece on the 90th anniversary of the RAF I got to shake the hand of an 112-year-old man, who was in the RAF from day one and is still alive! Day one! Henry Allingham. We couldn't do an interview because he is hard of hearing, but I got to meet him and shake his hand. Incredible!"

Though he still gets described as a "fledgling" presenter, Dan, who is now 29, has actually been flapping his television wings since 2003 – when he made his first programme on the 60th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein in the deserts of North Africa, the pivotal Allied victory when Montgomery fought off Rommel's army, stemming German advances deeper into Africa. A one-hour documentary on BBC2 is quite a gig for someone fresh out of university with no television experience, of course, but Dan presented alongside his father, the veteran Newsnight broadcaster Peter Snow, best known for his enthusiastic use of the swing-o-meter on election night.

Snow senior was initially reticent to work with his son, thinking it the sort of gimmick of which he, as a broadcaster and political journalist of distinction, should steer well clear. Dan said he was unfazed at the time that the opportunity might be missed, as he had plans to go back to Oxford University or somewhere in North America to study for a PhD. "Then they [the BBC] asked again, and that time Dad said we could give it a go and make one programme together. We were sold on it because it would have Dad giving a general's-eye view of the battles and me out in the field saying: 'While the generals were sitting in the tent having ice-cold lemonade, it was pretty tough out here on the frontline...' It was telling the story from two different angles and that felt legitimate."

The father-and-son team went on to make two further history series together, Battlefield Britain and Twentieth Century Battlefields, winning a Bafta along the way, and paired up again earlier this year for What Britain Earns which, as the title suggests, looked at salaries in the UK.

Now Dan has earned the right to emerge from his father's shadow but he is still engagingly frank about the debt he owes both parents for his current success. "I owe them everything," he admits. "I grew up with parents whose job it was to tell stories, to make complicated ideas simple, to explain things and to be engaged with the world. We used to sit at home and talk about the Middle East and why it was in a bad way, and Dad would explain it to me."

He describes a fulfilled, engaging and loving childhood, though the structure of his family was complicated, to say the least. Peter had six children with three different women (Dan's mother, Peter's second wife, is the Canadian broadcaster Ann MacMillan). As well as two younger sisters, Dan also has two older half-siblings from his father's first marriage (Shane and Shuna – no, Dan isn't convinced about the his'n'hers names either), who came to stay at weekends. On "mad family holidays", a troupe of Snows would pile into a car and disappear on lengthy camping and sailing trips. Another half-sibling, Matthieu, from an early relationship of Peter's with a Frenchwoman, popped up when Dan was 18, a welcome addition to the rambling family. Then there's the Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan, now rector of St Antony's College, Oxford, one of the aunts and uncles on his mother's side whom Dan credits with a hand in bringing him up. On the other side is Uncle Jon, Peter's first cousin and the long-established face of Channel 4 News. Further back is the former Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Dan's great-great-grandfather.

Dan was immersed in the family trade from a young age. "Our family videos were shot like documentaries, because my Dad knew how to edit and shoot things. My sisters and I were doing pieces to camera outside the Pyramids or on the Champs-Elysées, aged five."

This explains why he found such an easy camera presence early on. Now, with five years of broadcasting experience under his belt, Dan has a bulging portfolio of television credits in his own right. A recent BBC1 programme on the abandoned island of St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides received glowing reviews all round; next up, after the Hadrian documentary, is a BBC4 series on the Dark Ages pegged for next spring.

Believe it or not, there is one thing Dan's parents have not been able to prepare him for – though he's a regular face on its channels, and has been tipped as a future star, Dan remains a jobbing freelancer at the BBC. "I know this sounds whiny, but my parents both had jobs and pensions," he says. "Dad went into the office on a Monday morning and planned his month and his year. I have no idea what I'll be doing in six months' time. Why would the BBC offer me a contract? They'd be like: 'Dude, where do you think you're going to go? ITV?'"

In primetime TV terms, history is either sexed up or dumbed down – but either way, it sounds a far cry from Dan's Oxbridge academic background. "I have to admit I was quite snobbish about The One Show at first," he says of BBC1's early-evening "topical magazine" show. "But there have been some really interesting things on there. It's factual and it's fun. It's better than the soaps on the other channel!"Is he struggling to be taken seriously as a historian? His upcoming book on the 18th-century siege of Quebec will be his first full-length, stand-alone history text, though he has already written two books to tie in with the BBC series. "It's a huge challenge. You have to build credibility, but I hope I can go on making light-hearted but factually accurate history for a really wide audience, people who have never really thought about history before."

He received a hefty advance from HarperCollins for the book he is currently working on and hopes it will be reviewed by respected military historians and earn him some kudos in academic circles. He glosses over the two BBC books, though the dust jacket of Twentieth Century Battlefields boasts high praise from Avi Shlaim and Hew Strachan, Oxford professors of International Relations and History respectively. The former US commander-in-chief "Stormin'" Norman Schwarzkopf calls it "accurate and insightful".

Dan admits the limits television puts on history can be frustrating, but he values its popular reach and is learning to work with it. "The biggest problem with television history is that you apply completely different rules and expectations to it than you would to a book," he explains. "In the publishing world it is understood that you have the Horrible Histories series for a kid, then maybe illustrated history, before you might progress to a tome based on someone's PhD thesis. The weird thing about BBC1 at nine o'clock is that you're trying to cater to that entire audience in one 60-minute programme. In 60 minutes there are only about 12,000 words to tell the history of the Battle of Britain or the First World War for people who have never even heard of them."

He has big ideas for harnessing the internet to overcome this obstacle. "You've got me on my favourite subject now. I'm very excited by the internet because I believe that one day when television channels disappear you'll have a website with a sexy, five-minute promo saying: 'Yeah – gunpowder plot – this is what happened,' and then a longer, more thoughtful 40-minute piece, and beyond that a two-hour interview with the leading expert on the gunpowder plot with no sexiness at all. I think this whole idea about dumbing down will disappear. That's my plan." He already produces short video guides for English Heritage. Have one sent to your phone and Dan will be your private tour guide around the site of the Battle of Hastings or Dover Castle. He has set up a production company, Ballista Media, with his friend Tom Clifford to make the videos. "BAL-lista!" he exclaims, as if announcing a lottery rollover jackpot.

Dan Snow grew up in Barnes in south-west London and attended the local private school, St Paul's, where he was school captain. At Balliol College, Oxford, he captained the rowing team, competing in the University Boat Race three times, and got a double first in his degree (though evidence of university tomfoolery is displayed on the fireplace in a photograph of the morning-after-the-night-before, where Dan is kneeling on the floor wearing just his pants and some plastic armour). Some wag decided his life sounded a little too charmed, and tinkered with Dan's Wikipedia page. The entry was fluffed out, attributing invented heroics to Dan on a transatlantic sailing trip. The imposter even used the author name "Dan Snow" to make it look as if Dan was creating his own tales of derring-do.

Dan had followed Peter to Balliol. He says he planned to rebel by turning his back on the family profession in one way or another – but instead he has managed to conflate the history and the broadcasting sides of his background. He doesn't seem in any hurry to sever professional ties with his father, despite earning his own stripes. These days, his existence resembles a rather jolly limbo between his carefree student days and a projected middle-class future involving home ownership, marriage and children.

For the record, Dan is hoping to benefit from the plummeting property market later this year, is too busy for relationships (though he is known as a ladies' man) and dreams of continuing the Snow line one day with a bundle of children. The disorder in his flat is not entirely his responsibility, as he lives with a friend, and the flat is the friend's parents' former family home.

This makes his living quarters a strange mix: the formal dining room Dan uses as a study is furnished with a table in dark wood, high-backed chairs upholstered in lush red material and a couple of vast, ancient-looking Oriental canvases, updated for the 21st century with a couple of laptops and piles of history books, packed into shelves and strewn across the table and floor. The shelves in the living room also groan under the weight of books, though among the doorstops on Nelson, Wellington and Stalin are books titled The Art of Seduction, The Lexicon of Love and, curiously, How To Pull – A Girl's Must-Have Guide To Meeting and Dating Men. Perhaps Dan is trying to get some insider advice, as he admits to having put his work before the several serious relationships he has had in his twenties, and mentions a recent break-up with an "incredible Nigerian obstetrician".

"Partly work was to blame," he admits, the only downside he can find with his job. "I've been very selfish. I love what I'm doing and am hugely excited by the opportunities, but it just means you can be a terrible boyfriend. I think at a different time it would have gone differently."

Even this one drawback offers the hope of a silver lining, however. "The nice thing about starting early is that I hope I'll be able to build this momentum behind the career and then build a marriage and family later on, because I come from a wonderful family and I really aspire to give my kids all the advantages that I had and all the love I had as a boy."

If not the cat who got the cream, Dan Snow is certainly the kid who got the train set, and the toy soldiers, not to mention the model aeroplane kit.

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