Live on TV: history at work

The making of a TV historian

This article is taken from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The eleven days following the late Queen’s death and the accession of the new King were among the most remarkable of my life. I’d covered royal events before, including the funerals of both Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother. But this was different, in both length and intensity. 

It was exhausting but exhilarating. It gave me a front-row seat as the immaculately rehearsed ceremonies of the new King’s accession and the late Queen’s last journey, lying in state and funeral unfolded in scene after scene, like the animated pages of an illuminated manuscript. 

But were they a liturgy, to be witnessed much of the time in silent reverence? Or something more like a symbolic national history, to be explained and understood?

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And what on earth was I, an ex-academic, doing jostling with Dimblebys and their lesser followers for a place in the royal reporting sun? It’s a long story. My interest in monarchy was originally a purely academic one. It was also, like so much in my life, an act of calculated rebellion. 

My great teacher at Cambridge, Professor Sir Geoffrey Elton, was convinced that he had discovered a Tudor revolution in government, in which the fallible personal rule of the king and his household was replaced by the impersonal power of a state bureaucracy. 

To think that this could happen under such a king as Henry VIII struck me as simply silly (though I did not, at least at first, put it so bluntly to Professor Elton). And I determined to prove the fact by taking the role of the king’s Privy Chamber — the equivalent of the Downing Street staff — as the subject of my PhD. 

To his credit, Elton as my research supervisor allowed me to do it. To his even greater credit, his initial reaction was to try to accommodate my findings in his own theory. Since the one subverted the other, the attempt failed, as, and resoundingly, did our relationship.

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And there probably things would have rested for me, with a semi-wrecked academic career. But I was rescued by circumstance, as my detachment from and disenchantment with academic life coincided with the dramatic public breakdown — part lurid soap opera, part pitiful personal tragedy — of the marriage of the then Prince and Princess of Wales. 

For it turned out that a detailed knowledge of the earlier marital traumas of Henry VIII and his six wives was an excellent basis for commentary on the War of the Waleses, as the Sun memorably christened the Chas and Di imbroglio.

Moreover, on the principle of an ill wind, the appetite of the Sun and the rest turned out to be insatiable. Thus one thing led to another and I became a fully-fledged “television historian”.

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But, curiously, television was the (re)making of me intellectually as well. It was television commissions which led me to write — as “the books of the series” — my two major Tudor biographies, Elizabeth: Apprenticeship and Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII. And it was television, with the huge commission of Monarchy, which got me out of the rabbit hutch of the Tudors and made me study seriously the whole sweep of English history from the Anglo-Saxons to yesterday. 

Academics don’t do the big picture any more

Academics don’t do the big picture any more. Television historians, at least good ones, have to. The result was another “book of the series”: Crown and Country, which attempted no less than (as its subtitle said) to be “A History of England through the Monarchy”. 

And Crown and Country was my vade mecum throughout those long, hoarse, red-eyed hours in studio. It meant that the facts were at my fingertips. It gave me the big picture as well. And it linked the two with the idea that royal ceremony is a sort of symbolic abstract of our thousand-year history.

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Which, it turns out, made me different as a commentator as well. Even television reviewers noticed. Well sort of. “Where were the heavyweights?”, Camilla Long cried in the Sunday Times. “I was panting for a serious historian,” she lamented, but “the only one I found was David Starkey on GB News.”

She picked up on something else: I not only knew what I was talking about, I was “passionate” about it as well. Which, she concluded, “was a welcome change after hours of Carolean clods such as Jonathan Dimbleby on ITV.”

But, and it’s not merely a matter of vanity to labour the point a little, the difference between Starkey’s style and Dimbleby’s was not accidental. Instead it was the result of deliberate, calculated choice by the other broadcasters. In particular, by the BBC. Here, Huw Edwards told us early on that the channel would not be talking much over the ceremonies: rather, he and his fellow presenters would display a “respectful” silence. 

Once again, Camilla Long half grasped what this meant. “If you have decided simply not to tell your viewers what is happening, then you are no longer journalists,” she declared. Instead the BBC — “seeing itself as above everything” — had become “mourners, and, by offering a trigger warning, also nannies”. 

This suggests that the national broadcaster was taking the event, and of course itself, far too seriously. But the truth is surely the opposite. You do not explain because you think there is nothing to explain. And, far from being a mourner or a nanny, much less a journalist, the “respectfully silent” presenter has become the mere impresario of a gorgeous but empty ceremony. 

Worth experiencing, of course, because it looks magnificent and sounds wonderful. And worth enhancing with camera-work worthy of a feature film. But not worth being taken seriously.

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This gets to the nub of the matter. We are, as King Charles declared in his accession speech to both Houses of Parliament, a “parliamentary monarchy”. Or, to put the same thought in a characteristically British oxymoron, a “Royal Republic”. But this idea can mean one of two very different things. 

Walter Bagehot, who wrote of “a Republic having insinuated itself beneath the folds of a Monarchy”, distinguished between the “dignified” and the “efficient” parts of our constitution. The Monarchy belonged to the former; Parliament and the Prime Minister to the latter. And — and Bagehot is quite explicit on this — the Monarchy was a mere charade to amuse and divert the masses, who were too stupid and ill-educated to understand the republican reality of prime ministerial government.

Whether they realise it or not, and I rather fancy they do, by refusing to explain royal ceremony, as they would any other important event, the BBC and the mainstream media espouse Bagehot’s view that monarchy is a new opium of the people. 

But they do so, of course, at the very moment that the republican dignity of Victorian parliamentary government has collapsed into the post-imperial shame of the Decade of Four Prime Ministers and very likely the Year of Three. Compared to that, the old Queen and the new King look dignified in the ordinary, non-denigrating sense of the word. And pretty efficient, too.

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Which means surely that, more than ever, we need to look at the other face of our Royal Republic. To see the Monarchy as the central thread in our history and its ceremonies, not as flummery, but as the symbolic epitome of past political realities. As such, they deserve and demand explanation — not least because they represent crises worse than this from which we have recovered to survive and thrive.

Another great royal ceremony lies ahead in the Coronation. A heavy burden rests on those who will organise it and a heavier one on those who will explain it. They cannot remain “respectfully silent” this time.

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