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Lucy Worsley on her passion for the past

PUBLISHED: 13:59 18 February 2014 | UPDATED: 14:00 18 February 2014

Lucy loves the fact that history is playing such a big part in the television schedule – whether that’s through drama or documentaries – but hopes that more people which actually visit museums and historic buildings

Lucy loves the fact that history is playing such a big part in the television schedule – whether that’s through drama or documentaries – but hopes that more people which actually visit museums and historic buildings

Archant

A local King helped shape the future of television’s History Queen, Berkshire’s Lucy Worsley. Now she’s looking at how the British monarchy was ‘made in Germany’, Claire Pitcher discovers

Historian Lucy Worsley’s earliest memory is going to playgroup near Reading University and picking blackberries in Whiteknights Park. Her father, Peter, worked nearby, close to the family home in Northcourt Avenue. He’s an Emeritus Professor of quaternary geology (the most recent 2 million years in the Earth’s history) at the university.

Lucy, now a BBC presenter, writer and Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, has a strong connection to the Royal county, which started when she was at school in Reading: “I went to the Abbey School (those green uniforms) and later on St Bartholomew’s School in Newbury. My history teacher, Mr King, is still there, and I was delighted to see him when I went back to the school recently to award the end of year prizes to the pupils. I couldn’t get my head around the fact that people were calling him ‘John’, though – he’ll always be ‘Mr King’ to me,” Lucy laughs.

It was Mr King who inspired Lucy’s further studies in history which would eventually lead her to the position she has today: “History always seemed to me at school to be the subject that was least like ‘work’. I guess I’m very fortunate that my work as a historian still doesn’t seem like ‘work’, just an interesting and challenging form of play! It’s a vocation, and I’m lucky to have it,” she says. From school – to college – and whereas some would choose their place of learning based on academic results or popularity of the course, Lucy saw things differently: “I selected my college – New College – on the rather geeky grounds that it was the most architecturally perfect of the colleges, with quads from three different centuries,” she admits.

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Dream job

Leaving New College with first class honours in Ancient and Modern History, Lucy’s first role was as an Inspector of Historic Buildings for English Heritage before moving up to Scotland as Major Projects and Research Manager for Glasgow Museums. It was her experience and passion that led to her current position where she oversees the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace State Apartments and Kew Palace in Kew Gardens. “As Chief Curator, I’m responsible for looking after and making additions to the collection, getting it out onto display for our visitors, and carrying out research into the buildings and the stories that unfolded within them. For someone interested in social and art history, as I am, it’s really one of the best jobs imaginable.”

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As seen on TV

Although she describes being called the ‘Queen of television’ as very flattering, Lucy says she won’t be demanding curtseys from her dedicated subjects, in fact she insists her onscreen career was a bit of an accident: “It just arose naturally out of the rest of my work, which is entirely aimed at getting people interested in the past. All curators have to give guided tours of their museum, or give talks at adult education sessions, or speak on the local news when their new exhibition opens, so I think that making a TV programme about history is just the continuation of the same mission by other means.”

Based on her book, Lucy’s latest series, ‘A Very British Murder’, was screened on BBC4 in September last year and focused on a very British phenomenon: the idea that we can take enjoyment from hearing about a horrible murder.

Lucy explains: “It’s a guilty pleasure that’s been part of British culture since the beginning of the 19th century, when people began to feel a bit safer from nature and its dangers. They could therefore afford the luxury of worrying about dying not from disease or famine, but from something as inherently unlikely as getting murdered. It led to sensational journalism, plays, novels, even songs. We travelled forward in time through Victorian melodrama to Wilkie Collins, Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper, and ended up in the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.”

Rather than scripting the programmes, when Lucy did her pieces to camera during the show she was actually making it up on the spot which, for some, would be quite daunting. Not so for Lucy: “I think that for me it’s the way to make it sound more spontaneous. You can have so much fun with the camera introducing people to wonderful objects, like the scalp of murderer William Corder, which appeared in the series, or with clothes like the Victorian crinoline.”

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Coming soon…

Tales from the Royal Bedchamber, If Walls Could Talk: The History of the Home and Antiques Uncovered – just three of the many mini series and one-off programmes Lucy has been a part of on the BBC. With her warm personality and natural presenting skills, it’s no surprise she was approached to appear on so many documentaries. So would she ever consider a full time television career? “No, I wouldn’t, because my main work is as a curator. That’s why you won’t see me in programmes that aren’t to do with history. Sadly, it means no ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ for me,” she says.

Thank goodness for that, Lucy’s time is far better spent bringing history to life – whether it’s as Chief Curator or on screen. Her next programme focuses on members of the monarchy we know relatively little about, as she explains: “This new series is for the 2014/1714 anniversary of the start of the Georgian age. In 1714 Queen Anne died and we had the first of our German Georges come over from Hanover to take over as king … they’re not a well-known or well-understood dynasty, so I think people should really know more about how the British monarchy was ‘made in Germany’.”

History for some is nothing but a distant memory of sitting in a classroom being bombarded by dates, names, countries, wars, kings and queens, but these days modern history is much more accessible thanks to filmmakers. For Lucy, getting people interested in the past’s people and events through her work in television is only half the battle: “I think it’s great that history forms a reasonable chunk of what you can see on television at the moment, but the end goal for me is to get people to vote with their feet: to visit the museums, historic houses and places we have in Britain, to value them, and to care for them. There’s still a lot more to be done!”

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‘If I could meet one character from history…’

It would be Queen Caroline (1683-1737). Not many people know about the wife of George II, but she really was the funniest and cleverest (as well as the fattest) queen consort we’ve ever had. She was born a German princess, and ended up as British queen through some extraordinary turns of fate. She was interested in science, art and the life of the mind, and was responsible, among other things, for promoting the new idea of inoculating children against the deadly disease of smallpox.

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