Lucy Worsley: ‘I thought my parents’ TV was a waste of money’

The historian and presenter recalls how Michael Wood’s revelatory documentaries and Blue Peter made an impression on her despite a television-light upbringing

My parents weren’t keen on me watching television when I was growing up, in the 70s and 80s, which is ironic given that I’ve ended up working in it. My dad was a lecturer at Reading university and my mum worked at the Workers’ Educational Association. They grew all their own vegetables and were awfully middle class. TV was rationed in our house – I would play the piano instead, for an hour a day. My brother wanted to watch the TV so much that he would quite happily sit in front of the test card.

As a child, my parents’ attitude rubbed off on me; I have an old teenage diary that marks the moment when my parents decided to buy a colour television. I was very much against it and wrote that it was a waste of money.

There were some things we were allowed to watch, though. I used to enjoy Newsround, with John Craven, and Blue Peter. There is one item from Blue Peter that I remember really clearly: a recreation of the life of Marie Antoinette in the chapel of Versailles. She would open up a big book that had little snippets of the fabric of all her dresses in it and she would choose which dress she wanted to wear by putting a pin in it. I suppose I remember it vividly because it made me think I wanted to maybe work in that area. I am a museum curator when I am not on the television and in our collection at Kensington Palace we have a book like Marie Antoinette’s, which belonged to the daughters of George III.

Lucy Worsley
‘TV was rationed in our house’ ... Lucy Worsley as a child. Photograph: Courtesy of Lucy Worsley

If my parents were feeling generous after the news, we would be allowed to stay on and watch the Carringtons in Dynasty, too. I remember the melodrama of it all tickling my fancy. Krystle Carrington was a sort of Catherine of Aragon figure in the story – married to the hero, but always facing threats from other villainous, glamorous women who wanted to knock her off her perch.

However, there was one series that was considered not just acceptable but actually laudable by my parents: In Search of the Trojan War, with Michael Wood. When I met him as an adult, I said to him: “You’re not wearing your leather trousers, I’m disappointed.” He explained to me that his image then had been so out of the ordinary – so refreshing – that what I had remembered as leather trousers had in fact just been jeans. Here was an archaeologist and television presenter, getting to go to Turkey, walking through dusty ruins and desert landscapes and being clever, but also informal. That was the thing that really struck people in 1985: it looks like a conventional documentary format now, but it was so different at the time.

As a result of the series, I got the little kiddy versions of the Odyssey and the Iliad and read novels and stories about it. Had I been an Edwardian boy, that’s what I might have been learning at Eton, but as a girl in Nottingham in the 80s I was learning those stories through TV and books.

Michael Wood
‘What I remembered as his leather trousers had in fact just been jeans’ ... Michael Wood. Photograph: Glenn Copus/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

As with the Trojans or the Tudors, there are many evergreen stories that we come back to again and again. I think history documentaries are as much about the present as they are the past. When I made the series about the six wives in 2016, that was considered to be immensely radical, because it didn’t have Henry VIII in the title – he wasn’t foregrounded. The next step on from that was the musical Six, which doesn’t even have the word “wife” in the title.

The world is changing, so history has to keep up – I am excited to see the new Anne Boleyn drama, where she will be played by a black actor, Jodie Turner-Smith. And, these days, I do take TV seriously as an art form – it is really important.

Blitz Spirit With Lucy Worsley is on BBC One at 8.30pm on 23 February


As told to Hannah J Davies

The GuardianTramp

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