TV historian Lucy Worsley on Historic Royal Palaces' Hampton Court and Kew
A regular fixture on our screens, Lucy Worsley’s lively and accessible presenting style has broken the mould in the male-dominated world of TV history programmes – helping to popularise the past like never before. But away from the small screen, she’s also the chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces, which looks after Hampton Court and Kew Palace in Surrey among others. Angela Wintle went to meet her
Once seen, never forgotten, Dr Lucy Worsley has made a dramatic impact on the world of history documentaries, transforming the way the past is brought to life on television.
With her Mabel Lucie Attwell bob, distinctive dress sense and impish sense of humour, she delights in challenging our preconceptions about ‘fusty academics’. No bluestocking, she.
Take her website, for example, which brings informality to a whole new level. ‘Welcome to the website of Lucy Worsley’, it greets newcomers, the words handwritten in the sort of jaunty lettering you see on the covers of chick lit novels. But it gets better. ‘Please, please send me an e-mail,” she entreats. “I love hearing from you,” before adding that you will have deduced that she’s a No-Mates who spends too much time in the library.
It’s no surprise that she’s already clashed swords with fellow historian David Starkey, never one for wearing his learning lightly. When he accused Worsley, 37, and her female cohorts of “feminising history” by writing “historical Mills and Boon” (not to mention using their good looks to push up sales), she retorted by saying he looked like “a cross owl”.
Needless to say, she charged on regardless, delivering her own distinctive brand of populist history. She’s probably best known for her four-part BBC2 and BBC4 series, If Walls Could Talk, an intimate history of the home that not only took us through the bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen, but revealed precisely what people did in them – from the Normans to the present day.
Its success largely rested on her willingness to muck in, whether washing Tudor linen in urine or walking through a busy London street dressed in a Victorian gown. “Someone did shout: ‘Eff off, Little Bo Peep’, but I lost all my sensitivity making that programme,” she reflects breezily.
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“Lots of historians are sniffy about re-enactors. I remember meeting someone very grand while I was making the programme who said: ‘Oh, I see you’re going over to the dark side.’ I’ve suffered from that thinking, too, but you can learn a lot by recreating stuff.”
A TV stalwart
Never far from our screens, in recent months she has recounted the bizarre tale of Peter the Wild Boy (a feral child brought to London by George I to become a ‘human pet’ in Kensington Palace) and presented an absorbing three-part series about the flamboyant Regency period (Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency).
Watching the latter, I found myself mesmerised by her idiosyncratic presenting style. There’s a beguiling girlishness about her, which the hair slide in her blonde bob only serves to heighten, and you sense she might go skipping out of shot at any moment (in fact, she did just that in one programme). She clearly delights in dressing up too – the wackier, the better.
You can see why television embraced her and commentators have gone to town likening her, by turns, to ‘a mischievous flapper’ with ‘Mitford girl appeal’, ‘a bright young thing’ and ‘a pen-and-ink drawing by EH Shepard of Christopher Robin’s Bohemian godmother’. Does she recognise herself in these descriptions?
“It’s not necessarily how I think of myself, but I can see where they’re coming from,” she laughs. “People do make the most pigeonhole judgements. But then, that’s the job of the historian – to look at people’s dress, hair, houses and possessions throughout history to see how they would have been read at the time – so I can hardly complain.”
She stumbled into television at a time when the BBC had woken up to the fact that they weren’t using female historians. Do women bring a fresh perspective? “Well, if you’re female, you are by default positioned outside the establishment. You can’t help but appear to be critiquing things, even if you’re not intending to do so, because traditionally history has been written by middle-aged men.
“I’m unashamedly interested in so-called feminine matters, such as housing, domestic routines, clothes and diet, because it’s through studying these subjects that we get a real chance to identify with long-dead people across the ages, and understand what life was like for them.”
Surrey’s historic heritage
We may know her best from television, but it’s her day job, as chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces – an independent charity that looks after Hampton Court Palace, Kew Palace, the Tower of London, Kensington Palace State Apartments and the Banqueting House in Whitehall – which is closest to her heart.
Her office at Hampton Court, which she once shared with a stuffed raven from the Tower of London, sounds suitably offbeat, and she says you feel quite removed from the modern world when the place falls silent at night.
“The big attraction is its sheer size. You have the Tudor palace at its core, the spacious Stuart additions and then the quirky Gothic bits the Victorians added on top. You could spend your life there and still not know everything.”
She says Surrey is blessed with historic buildings and lists Kew Palace, Syon House and Ham House, among other notable attractions. “This little stretch of the Thames was particularly popular with retired royal mistresses,” she says. “If you got into bed with the king, the ideal outcome was to get rich, retire to the banks of the Thames in West London and build yourself a villa.”
Historic Royal Palaces also oversees Kew Palace in Kew Gardens, which has a somewhat melancholy history. Once the scene of happy family life for George III, Queen Charlotte and their 15 children, it was later where the king was kept during his ‘madness’.
“Today, we think he had porphyria [a chemical imbalance of the brain that caused insanity], which can easily be controlled with drugs. But unchecked, the illness caused him to foam at the mouth, talk incessantly and, famously, produce blue urine. Occasionally, he had to be restrained in a straightjacket to quell his violent convulsions and the palace became a place of great unhappiness.”
An Oxford education
Her fascination with the past was sparked by an inspiring history teacher at her Reading comprehensive. But her vocational moment arrived while reading history at New College, Oxford, when she realised it was someone’s job to look after the lovely old college buildings.
After completing her PhD, she embarked on a career that took her from Milton Manor House, a privately-owned stately home in Oxfordshire, to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) and English Heritage. Then, in 2004, she was headhunted for the job at Historic Royal Palaces. She has also written several well-received books and was last year nominated as one of 50 women to watch in the arts.
All this, you might imagine, leaves little time for a private life, but somehow she has managed it and lives with her partner, the award-winning architect Mark Hines, in a minimalist flat by the Thames.
Children were never on her wish list. “I couldn’t write as many books or have as much fun in my work if I had children,” she says. “Society finds it a bit challenging and weird if a woman isn’t incredibly child-orientated. But I’m lucky. History is my passion, as well as paying my mortgage.”
My Favourite Surrey…
Restaurant: Dinner at home is more of a treat for me than dinner out, so my favourite restaurant would be Chez Moi minus the cooking, or a bloody steak bought from PJ Dale in East Molesey.
Shop: The Walton Road charity shops in West Molesey, where I often hunt for bargains. There are a whole cluster of them near Tesco and I rarely leave empty-handed. One of my favourite purchases was a set of 12 pretty flowery teacups and saucers, which we used at the office. Sadly, only four survive – the care that curators take in handling historic items doesn’t extend to our own crockery!
View: The sight that greets you from the leaded roof of Hampton Court’s east range, which looks down between the barley-sugar chimney stacks at the Thames and the Mole, and the gardens and the parks of Hampton Court and Bushy. It makes you realise what a peaceful oasis of trees, gardens and water we have here.
Place to relax: Claremont Gardens near Esher. At the moment I’m obsessed with Princess Charlotte, the daughter of George IV, who died in 1817, along with her child, at Claremont House after a 48-hour labour. She was only 21. I did some filming about her there recently.
Place to visit: Hampton Court Palace, of course!