Top historians on British TV

6 min

History on British television has become a popular cultural form over the last few decades. In her academic work professor Erin Bell analysed the notions of charismatic television personalities. We have reached her out to find out who could be the “British Barbero” and she went on to list about many British historians that you may not have heard about yet, such as Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga to name a few.

Professor Bell, you have analysed the notion of “charismatic television personalities” involved in history programmes. Could you give us a definition to better understand what you actually mean?

As Ann Gray and I noted in 2007, charisma is not intrinsic to historians appearing on television, but it is granted to some of them because they are appearing on television or in other media. It is not enough to simply appear on television – the opportunity to be charismatic is only granted to those historians who (1) are enabled to appear on television, which means a disproportionate number of white men appear, and (2) are allowed to be distinctive in terms of their role in the programme and how they are depicted aesthetically, for example. Historians interviewed as part of a wider documentary with a brief segment shown on screen are rarely represented as charismatic, whereas those, such as Simon Schama, who lead the viewer from their home to the (often distant) places or times being discussed are more likely to seem charismatic, and are more likely to be filmed in such a way – for example, where the camera follows their movement across ancient sites, or follows their description of a work of art, across the artwork itself.

Simon Schama – Face of Britain by Simon Schama (BBC Two, 2015)

Alongside Schama a more unusual example who has appeared regularly on British television since the 1990s is the Classicist Bethany Hughes, often depicted in series on ancient civilisations (such as Treasures of the World). Certainly Hughes may be described as charismatic for the reasons noted above, although female researchers/scholars, including Hughes, are often judged, in reviews appearing in newspapers and websites, on their appearance rather than presenting skills – today this occurs to a lesser extent than when Ann Gray and I noted this.

Bettany Hughes – Treasures of the World (Channel 4, 2021)

What is the present role of historians in the UK media? And what are they mostly asked to intervene about?

UK television certainly is a familiar space for historians; an early example is AJP Taylor’s series Challenge (1957) marking the 40th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Taylor,  like many later historians, also made frequent appearances on BBC discussion series from the 1950s. Today, historians appear regularly in TV history documentaries, news reports and in other factual broadcasts. Their appearances tend to relate to anniversaries (such as the liberation of Auschwitz and other Second World War anniversaries) or to current events (such as the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020-present, with accompanying actions such as the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader, in Bristol in June 2020).

Historians invited to comment tend to be those already known for their media work, such as Dan Snow (especially on Second World War history) and David Olusoga (especially on Black British history).

David Olusoga, At History: Black British History We’re NOt Taught in Schools – BBC Stories

Due to #BLM developments in the UK David Olusoga has appeared on television to a greater degree than previously (although he had presented earlier series such as A House Through Time in Spring 2020). Most markedly he differs from other TV scholars in that he has African heritage and has written about his experiences of racism as a mixed-race child growing up in a largely white area of Northern England in the 1970s and 1980s. A real sign of change may be that he was described as charismatic – according to the meaning I mentioned earlier – by the Times newspaper in a 2020 article on the fall of Colston’s statue in Bristol, marking if not a sea change, then certainly a significant moment of national media encouraging readers and viewers to regard a broader range of scholars as charismatic.

Would you describe these “charismatic” historians as influencers?

To some degree some historians may be seen as influencers; certainly, the six most active media historians seek in different ways to affect public, including politicians’, views of current events, often through reference to the past. Of the six historians considered, all bar one have a Twitter account and of these 5 accounts, all have a substantial following, ranging from 175,000 to 333,000. They tweet on a range of topics relating to their areas of research interest but they are almost always also related to topical issues: for example, since the beginning of 2022 Mary Beard, a Cambridge Classicist has tweeted on her forthcoming series but also on a campaign for state schools to teach Classics; Simon Schama, Art Historian at University of Columbia, USA has commented on contemporary anti-Semitism; while Lucy Worsley of the Historic Royal Palaces has referenced the inspiration her series on the Blitz Spirit gave to volunteers at Covid vaccination centres.

Mary Beard – Meet The Romans with Mary Beard (BBC Two, 2012)

Perhaps most striking is Professor (of Public History, University of Manchester) David Olusoga’s account, which offers an overview of a range of recent political issues relating to Britain’s imperial past, such as the fate of the Benin Bronzes held outside of Africa, and a recent Channel 4 series, Race & Medical Experiments on little-known histories of vital importance to understanding of contemporary racism.

The same historians are also represented on Spotify. Some actively seek recognition for their use of the medium; the media historian Dan Snow, for example, recently asked followers to vote for Dan Snow’s History Hit (podcast) as it has been nominated for a Podbible award in the “informative” category. Others use Spotify to a lesser degree but have a presence: Mary Beard’s entries on Spotify relate to her recent book Twelve Caesars; Simon Schama’s reflect his contribution to the Borris House Festival of Writing and Ideas (2020); and David Olusoga’s relates in the main to his Black and British book of 2016. However, a historian who enjoyed considerable television work in the 2000s but does not appear on Twitter, David Starkey’s representation on Spotify is perhaps the most interesting and certainly the most contentious: after being “cancelled” by his Cambridge College for comments made in a YouTube interview in which he refuted the seriousness of the transatlantic slave trade, he then claimed in a #SWYSI Spotify podcast hosted by the former TV producer Peter Whittle (founder of New Culture Forum, a right-wing group which denies that multiculturalism has ever existed in the UK) that he (Starkey) was being treated as a heretic. In the same interview he attacked the work of the #BLM campaign. He has also criticised Twitter as “disproving the myth of goodness”; meaning that that human behaviour is revealed in all its unpleasantness through social media. Starkey may not have a Twitter account, but there are 2 spoof accounts in his name reflecting stereotypically conservative views on immigration and popular culture. Scholars based at UK universities are increasingly advised to “advertise” their areas of research expertise on institutional webpages, so journalists searching for experts will locate them, whilst involvement in social media, although potentially problematic, as Starkey found to his cost, can also be a way to comment on current debate and highlight areas of importance beyond the Higher Education sector.

Erin Bell

Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader for BA History at the University of Lincoln, UK, she researches early modern religious and cultural history, particularly in relation to minority groups, in Western Europe and North America, and the representation of the past in factual TV programming and public history more broadly, in the UK and overseas.

(Updated at 1 of April 2022)