Spin the Globe: behind the scenes of the new series

The Radio 4 series in which historian Michael Scott takes famous events in world history and finds out what was happening at the same time elsewhere in the world, returns for a second series this week

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Starting in 1485, when Richard III was killed at the battle of Bosworth, the new series of Spin the Globe will also examine 1929, the year of the Wall Street Crash, and 323 BC, which is remembered for the death of Alexander the Great.

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Here, in an interview with History Extra, Scott takes us behind the scenes…

Q: What can listeners expect from the second series?

A: We are trying to do a few things differently. Sadly we can’t travel around the world to make the programme, but we are speaking to people from all over – for example, in the episode about Alexander the Great we talk to an expert based in Australia and to another in Calcutta. We’re definitely taking advantage of global research.

Q: What do you think are the main advantages of looking at history in this way – using famous dates as a ‘leap pad’ to other events?

A: There is no single way of looking at history – considering things from different points of view is the best way of getting an idea of what the past felt like.

This approach cuts across everything we learn in school – I was always told that studying history is akin to getting into a spaceship: we land in different places and take a look around, before getting back in and jetting off somewhere else.

This means you end up with a very disconnected sense of history – dots on a large canvas, but you don’t know how they are connected. In Spin the Globe, we are trying a different approach that helps give people a more-joined up sense of history.

Looking at events in this way shows the extraordinarily varied pace of historical change around the world, and how we still occasionally face the same kind of issues. For example, the year 323 BC was, for quite a few cultures, the end of an era – an axis point in history. Similarly, in modern history, events often have a global reach. The 1929 Wall Street Crash spread out and touched many other parts of the world.

This approach also combines ‘traditional’ history – battles, kings, deaths – with cultural history. One of the highlights of the first series for me was the 1914 episode: it was, of course, the outbreak of the First World War, but we found out that it was also the year that the foxtrot was created.

Similarly, in this second series we learn how the year of the Wall Street Crash, was also the year of the first Hollywood Academy Awards. One of the nominations in that year was Halleluiah, which was the first Hollywood film to have an all black cast.

Q: Considering you are a classicist, the Spin the Globe series often takes you outside your area of expertise. Is that exciting for you?

A: It is. I’m not pretending to know anything that the listeners don’t – it’s a journey of discovery for us all.

As we do our research and learn, we get a sense of the themes emerging. It goes from there.

Q: You’re better known as a television historian – how different is it doing radio?

A: You get to have a very close relationship with the different producers who have made each of the three episodes in the series. The producer and I conduct the interviews, and together we edit it and bring to life the themes that emerge.

That dialogue is in some ways much more intense than with television – with TV the practical issues of access [to historical sites] and timings inform the landscape of possibility for the programme. I really loved having a running dialogue with some great people.

Q: What were your highlights of the series?

A: I was astounded by the archives in the British Film Institute, not least because they produced publicity material created for the film Halleluiah. This went into great depth about how to advertise the film to different parts of the US, and even included publicity material on how to market to Germany – not an easy job given that it was one of the early talking films, with people speaking in English!

I was also fascinated to see the way in which the publicity material dealt with racial issues [Halleluiah was the first Hollywood film to have an all black cast]. I got the real sense that this film was a turning point. The director was forced to bet his own salary on the success of the film in order to get the Hollywood studio to stump up the rest! 

Also, in the third episode of the series, where we visit 323 BC, we are reminded how history is not just written by the winners, but crucially by the historians. Historians had huge power – they determine what we know today about the past.

There was a stark contrast between the detail we have about, say, the last days of Alexander the Great, and the patchy nature of what we know about sub-Saharan Africa, all thanks to what survives from the ancient literary and historical sources.  You can call it the ‘tyranny’ of the historian: we are at their beck and call.

Spin the Globe returns to Radio 4 on Tuesday 11 November at 4pm. To find out more, click here.

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You can find out more about Michael Scott at www.michaelscottweb.com or by following him on Twitter @drmichaelcscott.