Can history compete at prime time on Britain’s biggest channel? That was the challenge I was set by the BBC’s top brass. Me and a crack team of producers and researchers were told to come up with a history series that would bring popular history to the heart of BBC One.
We were given five slots, at 7.30pm – and we would be broadcasting live to the nation’s living rooms. The team assembled and the lengthy, intense and often amusing discussions began.
The great irony of my position was that I am fundamentally unsuited to judging what is interesting and stimulating to the wider public. I find doctoral theses on the crisis of the Rockinghamite Whigs fascinating. I enjoy reading about the doctrinal schism that led to the Synod of Whitby.
It is fair to say that I do not have my finger on the national pulse. The team have a better understanding of what will appeal to audiences and, as a result, my initial suggestions
were roundly rejected.
It became clear that while many people may not have an interest in ‘history’, we are all fascinated by great stories from the past – the personalities, the locations, the artefacts – and what could be more natural than bringing this to a peak time BBC One audience? So, after weeks of deliberations the shape of the programme emerged and National Treasures Live was born.
The production team rightly insisted that every episode is set in a stunning location with a significant historic building as a backdrop. We wanted to throw open the doors to some of the UK’s most exciting venues – including restorations, digs and heritage sites – and on, hopefully, warm summer nights the audience will see images that are both beautiful and important. I was very keen to ensure that the locations give us a spread geographically and chronologically and provide anyone who commits to watching all the episodes a sense of the broad sweep of British history.
Among other topics, we are talking about high medieval pomp and power at Dover Castle, domestic life for both employers and servants in late Victorian Wales at Erddig House, the communications revolution of the 20th century by looking at motor cars at the Beaulieu Motor Museum, and Shakespeare and the importance of language at an archaeological dig in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Famous faces like Lenny Henry, Sheila Hancock and Gregg Wallace will also be on hand to share their passion for history and explore particular subjects close to their hearts. Lenny has made a very moving film about the role of Afro-Caribbean service people during the Second World War and the racism they experienced when they returned here to live after the conflict was over.
We’re also joined by our fellow history enthusiasts. In a lively mix of film reports, Lucy Worsley, Ruth Goodman and Xanthe Mallett will reveal some of the country’s most mysterious, surprising and compelling stories. The excellent Lucy Worsley, for example, is her usual hugely engaging self as she picks out some of her favourite stories from our past, including the tale of the feral child known as Peter the Wild Boy.
The obscure will be accompanied by the mainstream in a way that I hope will be a fresh and exciting approach to telling the story of our shared past.
Crucially, we want to bring history to life and prove that it can be as enjoyable, dramatic and colourful as any of the other competing programmes, even the mighty soaps. The vast majority of our potential audience will not have a history degree, and we owe it to them to make it accessible, and yet the great trick will be to see if we can draw in my fellow history junkies too.
It will not be easy, but one of the many things history has taught me is that anything worth pursuing rarely is. I’ve been having a great time making it, and I hope you enjoy it.
You can watch the next instalment of National Treasures Live on 31 August at 7.30pm on BBC One.