When actor Danny Dyer found out, during an episode of the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, that he was related to medieval king Edward III, his awed reaction to his royal ancestor touched a chord with millions of viewers. Yes, as geneticist Adam Rutherford has calculated, it may well be the case that almost every Briton is related to the 14th-century king. Nevertheless, Dyer’s reaction endeared him to many, and presented an opportunity for the actor to find out more about his royal roots.
Danny Dyer’s Right Royal Family sees that idea come to fruition. The two-part history series has Dyer dressing up, visiting historical sites such as the medieval Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, and tasting traditional dishes including sheep’s tongue. Given Dyer’s characterful turns of phrase – the Vikings loved a “right old tear up”, while Eleanor of Aquitaine was “a bit of a looker” – many viewers might be surprised that, amid the “geezers” and “gaffs”, the nuggets of history on show are genuine and compelling. And advising the actor, and playing along with some of Dyer’s more ‘nutty’ responses, are several academic historians.
“The history these programmes offer is just as thoroughly researched and carefully presented as in any straight documentary,” says Laura Ashe, a professor of medieval literature at Worcester College, Oxford, who introduced Dyer to the fate of murdered 12th-century archbishop Thomas Becket in the first episode.“I suppose there’s less strictly historical content in an hour-long programme than there would be in a straight documentary, but it’s not clear why that should matter. The only thing that’s really different is who might be watching.”
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Dyer is unabashedly curious about his ancestry and, in the first episode, explores his connection to devout 13th-century French king Louis IX. Despite accusations of dumbing down, Dr Emily Guerry explains how the history she shared with Dyer “is the result of a decade of work on the primary sources related to the royal cult of the Crown of Thorns”.
Late in the episode, the actor learns that his ancestor Louis IX was not just a royal, but was also canonised as a saint. “It was moving for him, and therefore it was moving for all of us,” says Guerry, sharing how the combination of the aesthetic spectacle of the Sainte-Chapelle, the personal connection and the rare experience of being in the chapel alone “culminated in this really wonderful, earnest, authentic reaction that I’m so glad was captured on film”.
The historian also went to great lengths to add authenticity to Dyer’s recreation of the parade of the Crown of Thorns. “We know from primary source accounts of this parade that all of the people sang a psalm, Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini,” she explains. “It was the very same psalm used to celebrate Christ’s entry into Jerusalem in the Gospels.”
Guerry contacted a musicologist colleague and friend, Dr Eleanor Giraud from the University of Limerick, who transcribed a set of antiphons [short chanted sentences] used in Paris in the mid-13th century. “We found a choir based in Paris who practised it beautifully, and we ended up with a mid-13th-century chant that would have sounded like the one used when Louis first processed through the city with the Crown of Thorns. The use of the original, sacred music really enhanced the atmosphere and, as someone who has worked on these Parisian breviaries for years, it was thrilling to hear the notes from these medieval manuscripts come to life and find form in song again.”
So why might some people remain unconvinced about the history? “Perhaps because it’s a new, different genre of historical television,” says Guerry, “it seemed that people were worried about watching it. It’s a shame that there was criticism that this was ‘dumbing down history’ before people had even watched it. I think this new format completely challenges our expectations about watching a history programme on TV, and I believe it makes the study of the Middle Ages accessible in a new way. I also hope it shows the viewer that learning about history can be an extremely fun and joyous experience.”
“The response to the series has been quite extraordinary,” says Simon Young, the BBC’s commissioning editor for history. “It has clearly struck a chord with people who never usually watch historical documentaries, or who perhaps paid a bit less attention to history lessons in school.” And few programmes can claim to be as entertaining – while still bringing subjects such as the piety of Louis IX or the effects of William the Conqueror’s monetary policy to a broad BBC One audience. “It’s vitally important that we don’t always preach to the converted – but engage new audiences, and find new ways to explore the past on television,” Young says. “It is no bad thing to learn with a smile on your face – and this series achieves just that.”
Ashe adds how a frontman like Dyer might allow people to “let their guard down a bit.”
“I think it’s easy,” she says, “for people to have a vague sense that there are some things they ‘wouldn’t be interested in’, and programmes like this break through that with the different angle. It also matters that someone absolutely not associated with, say, medieval history, like Danny Dyer, should be on telly saying ‘this stuff is amazing’; it instantly makes people think again.”
Another new element is the presence of academic historians who are having fun with Dyer, sharing history that might seem a bit ridiculous or gruesome. Both Guerry and Ashe are pleased to be part of what Ashe calls “a long-term change, away from the old-fashioned image of the middle-aged man in tweed”.
“I’m not really what even my colleagues expect from a professor,” says Ashe. “It’s unnerving being commented on by a huge TV audience, though… and it’s impossible not to feel self-conscious. But I just trust I’m there for what I know, there’ll be a real conversation, and the audience will see that it’s two people having a real conversation.”
Thanks so much for watching #RightRoyalFamily with @MrDDyer - he is so kind, we had such fun talking about King Louis IX, and I loved showing him around the Sainte-Chapelle. Please visit the chapel next time you’re in Paris and do tune in next week too @BBCOne 👑 pic.twitter.com/84iSeaeFYD— Dr Emily Guerry (@EmilyGuerry) January 23, 2019
Being involved was “an absolute delight” says Guerry, pleased that since the programme aired, the response has been “overwhelmingly positive”.
“Danny Dyer has an excellent sense of humour; yes, he might be known for being on a soap opera, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have the ability to learn about history and enjoy it too. There’s nothing dumb about wanting to learn and he was really, truly enthusiastic. I hope that people who were perhaps afraid of it in the first instance have watched the show, learned something new, and changed their minds.”
Dr Emily Guerry is a senior lecturer in Medieval European History at the University of Kent.
Professor Laura Ashe is a professor of English Literature at Worcester College, University of Oxford. She will be speaking at BBC History Magazine’s Kings and Queens Weekend in March 2019.