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Lucy Worsley: A murderous fascination with history
Dr Lucy Worsley tells KATHERINE MACALISTER why picking out the racy bits of history is a guilty pleasure
You’ll have seen Dr Lucy Worsley on the television, the new darling of the BBC, shaking up the history department and giving the tweed jackets a run for their money. But there’s much more to this Oxford University girl than a pretty face – she’s determined, passionate and a feminist to boot, intent on giving as good as she gets, and its working.
If you had to categorise her then social history would be her speciality, but there’s much more to her than that. Our historical TV programmes tend to be fixated on certain periods, currently the Wars of The Roses, but previously the Tudors and the First and Second World Wars, but Lucy is single-handedly changing this. She wants to show us what was going on behind the scenes, in the bedrooms, in the newspapers, in the back streets. “I have a reputation among my friends for always concentrating on the rude bits,” she laughs.
Which is why she’s headlining the Blenheim Palace Literary Festival’s grand dinner, with a talk about her new book and four-part autumnal TV show A Very British Murder.
“It’s about the history of murder from 1800 onwards when they stopped dying of disease, war, and being press-ganged, when murder began to have a sinister sizzle to it and gave birth to the broadsheet newspaper, detective novels, Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. It became an artform in itself – the love of melodrama.”
Currently balancing her new TV career with her day job as Chief Curator at the Historic Royal Palaces, nothing seems to faze this new recruit. “It’s not a difficult step because as curator you are always doing talks and guides, so TV is a fairly natural extension to what I already do, teaching people about history, it’s just more of the same. Some historians don’t want to venture into TV in case it trivialises their work, but for me it helps.”
Hence the recent Tales of the Royal Bedchamber which you might have seen on TV. “It was like a historical tour of a Slumberland showroom,” Lucy jokes.
In terms of the risque nature of her material, where does she draw the line then? “Well the BBC obviously won’t show anything too rude and yet we want to answer the questions on everyone’s lips, so it’s a fine line,” she admits. “Put it this way, when they re-showed my programme Harlots, Housewives and Heroines at 8pm, it was a censored version of the 9pm version.”
Growing up in the Cotswolds, Lucy’s mum lives in Oxfordshire and she went to New College to study history. “I ran the Rag Parade and rowed and spent a lot of time dressing up and going to murder mystery parties – so some things don’t change,” she smiles.
Specialising in 17th century history, she’d known since her teens that she wanted to be a social historian: “It was something of a vocation so I was really lucky I had a very clear plan. As a result it’s never seemed like work and while I spend a lot of time working, it’s always fun so no one needs to feel sorry for me – I love it.”
As for her image, Lucy is hard to miss on the screen. Flamboyant in reds and peacock blues in her last programme, she makes sure she stands out from the crowd, so is that something she engineers? “Yes, image is really important. You might say it shouldn’t be and that people shouldn’t be judged by their looks, or that I’m a historian and should’t be constrained by my identity or judged by my appearance, but it’s inevitable and people have read into what people wore for hundreds of years, so I’m always interested in what I wear.
“Plus you have to be very versatile, but at the same time I make sure I’m friendly, accessible and cheerful, so its quite difficult to offend me.”
Breaking the mould in every way, Lucy is “chipping away at the old block, and as far as female historians go the BBC are making big efforts to change the culture, which is great because it needed to change. There isn’t enough social history out there. “But for me history is all-consuming and I’ve always wanted to know more – what did they eat for breakfast? Did they clean their teeth? So Blenheim is quite daunting but we will have a high old time talking about late Georgian serial killers, sensationalism, spikes in newspaper sales and a ‘stunning good murder’ as they used to call it. It’s a guilty pleasure really.”
SEE IT The Blenheim Palace Literary Festival 2013 runs from September 18-22. Lucy Worsley will talk about the British obsession with murder at the black tie closing festival dinner in the Orangery. Tickets £120.
Call 01993 812291 or see blenheimpalaceliterary festival.com
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