bettany hughes

Interview: Bettany Hughes

In 2011 the historian Bettany Hughes delivered the Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture, an annual talk organised by the Royal Television Society. ‘I wanted to know who the first female historian to present a television series was,’ she recalls. ‘The archivist came back, rather embarrassed, and said “It was you!” In 2000 I’d made a programme about the Domesday Book called ‘Breaking the Seals’.’

There are so many women now in the field of television history: Mary Beard, Lucy Worsley, Amanda Vickery, Lucy Moore, Janina Ramirez, Suzannah Lipscomb and, no doubt, more in the pipeline. It’s not a story any more. Result.

Since coming to wider public notice in a BBC2 series on the history of Sparta (which, she points out, took four years of unpaid development and much lobbying before it hit the screen), Hughes is thriving in her portfolio world. She juggles a hectic career which she describes as ‘sort of Benedictine: one-third raw academic, one-third writing and one-third television.’ Her latest book, a biography of Istanbul, comes out in 2014/15, and a clutch of television programmes is in the offing. She’s a judge for the annual ‘Heritage Angels Awards’, which acknowledge the unsung heroes of Britain’s heritage industry, and a passionate supporter of the charity ‘Classics for All’, which aims to get classical education into more state schools. Oh, and she has two teenage daughters, neither of whom are particularly into history. They’re both studying Mandarin.

‘There’s no history of history in our family,’ she says, ‘my parents were actors, so there wasn’t much money and I didn’t go abroad until I was 17. All our holidays were in Britain, in the car or by bike. We’d cycle off to see the churches on Romney Marsh, or wherever. It was a brilliant childhood. I wouldn’t say they were particularly into history, but they did appreciate getting out and seeing things and they passed that on to me and my brother.’

Hughes and her brother Simon – a professional cricketer and sports journalist – were brought up in Ealing, West London. She won a scholarship to study history at St Hilda’s College at the University of Oxford and afterwards started travelling in Europe, mainly in the Balkans, to research her postgraduate thesis. She soon realised that writing could fund her travelling and research.

‘The work I do is always practical and travel based,’ she says, ‘I don’t think you can understand history fully unless you get out to see all these places – the structures, the battlefields – it helps you to imagine it all.’ It’s precisely because her work is so location based and visual that it is a perfect fit for television.

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Until now the bulk of Hughes’ work has been in her specialist subject, the world of antiquity. From ‘The Hemlock Cup’, her book about Socrates, to ‘Divine Women’, last year’s three-part series on BBC2 focusing on the role of the female in early religions, and their gradual ousting by men. I wondered if this made Britain pale by comparison, a small, wet, Barbarian offshoot of Classical Europe.

‘The difference with the classical world doesn’t matter to me, really,’ she says thoughtfully, ‘If you go to Skara Brae – one of those sites on the edge  of Britain – you can see what would have been a bedroom and there’s a little stone shelf where the woman of the house probably put her jewellery before she went to sleep. It’s so easy to relate to it, even though it was the Stone Age. They weren’t building the Parthenon, but they weren’t less sophisticated as human beings. It’s so fascinating.’

She explains that about 40,000 years ago we started ‘to become the humans we are today, and to tell stories about ourselves,’ adding that in many ways she loves it more when she has to work harder for a story – to ferret it out, when it’s not all there on a plate as it may be in Greece or Italy.

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There are climatic reasons, she says, for the earlier development of the classical world. ‘History definitely begins with geography and meteorology: it was easier to have a settled life in Greece and that’s reflected in the archaeology.’ So it’s not our fault. It’s the weather.

There is a warmth and ease of delivery about Hughes that makes her a gift to television. She does a mean soundbite (Episode 1 of ‘Divine Women’ is called ‘When God Was a Girl’) and she’s genuinely enthused by her travels, from a prehistoric flint mine in Norfolk – Grime’s Graves, where she’s recently been filming – to the workaday River Thames in London, which she sees as one huge archaeological site and an incredible resource for all of us.

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‘There are many sites that fascinate me in Britain,’ she says, ‘The Temple of Mithras in London, for instance, that’s very exciting.’ She’s referring to the Roman-era cult temple discovered under the City of London in the 1950s and soon to reappear, almost in its original position, as part of the new Bloomberg complex west of the Walbrook.

‘I’m a Londoner born and bred and I love the fact that we have 40ft of history beneath our feet,’ she says, ‘Lots of it is effluent or rubbish, that’s the story of us, in the discard of what’s gone before. The Mithras temple reminds us of the heady pleasure the Romans took in inhabiting old territory. We think of them freezing on Hadrian’s Wall but it’s important to remember that for them [Britain] was like discovering America. You get such an idea of the vigour of Roman culture. Also, Mithraism was an Eastern cult so you sense the familiarity between east and west at that time.’

At Grime’s Graves, near Thetford, she was fascinated by the fact you could go right down into the mine, as our Stone Age ancestors did. There archaeologists have found shaped flints, obviously worked and then put back in the mine as gifts to the earth, and antler pickaxes and human remains, possibly mining casualties, possibly propitiatory offerings (though not, she adds hastily, buried alive). She reckons the mine produced around 5 million axes. It was a tool factory. It says something about life in Britain tens of thousands of years ago. It’s the best sort of history.

Just reading Hughes’ website makes you want to lie down in a darkened room, her professional life is so busy. She is often in demand as an expert: she researched and wrote about one of the British Museum’s ‘100 Objects’ for Neil McGregor’s smash hit series on BBC Radio 4. ‘It was amazing,’ she says, laughing, ‘but also quite hard: I had to talk about the Warren Cup, which shows very explicit homosexual activity. The number of euphemisms I had to use for a daytime Radio 4 audience was really taxing.’

Still, she’s optimistic about the state of British history broadcasting today. ‘I think as a nation we grow up as creatures of memory,’ she says, ‘but it was almost as if the telly people didn’t want to dramatise it. Now they are, and our innate curiosity is being really catered to at last.’

Much of that catering is being done by women, using all sorts of methods to communicate their ideas, and happily batting away the more Neanderthal of criticisms.

So we owe a debt to Hughes, for breaking the seals on all those Domesday documents in front of a small television audience as the second millennium dawned. As you may have noticed I haven’t mentioned her age, looks or figure.

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Quite an achievement, for a female historian on TV.

You can find details of Bettany Hughes’ upcoming books, lectures and television work on www.bettanyhughes.co.uk

Also see Heritage Angel Awards www.englishheritage.org.uk/caring/angel and Classics for All www.classicsforall.org.uk