Let’s Break The Ice, what are we drinking?
Today we are drinking a single barrel Bourbon. I’m very fond of the old Whiskey/Bourbon and this is one of the finest. It’s not something I would normally drink before lunchtime but when in Rome. Cheers!
Where did your love for history originate from?
Well, back at school of course. I had great history teachers but the main thing that caught my attention was Asterix The Gaul – so rather than seeing history written out as a narrative, you actually had characters – it made history come alive.
After your studies, you worked at the London Museum and then founded Visual Artefacts. What made you realize that there was a potential gap in the market for a Historical Advisor and how did you make the transition from academics to film?
Like most people in the film business, “chance”. When I was at Cambridge, I thought that I was going to be an Archaeologist and at the Museum of London, I was a Medievalist. This was in the early ’90s. There was a big recession and the union I was working for went bankrupt in the space of one weekend. So I figured I better start doing something else. I started doing TV and documentary research. I started off making films with National Geographic, History Channel, TLC, and others. Out of the blue, I got a call from Working Title. They had decided they were going to do a movie about Elizabeth I and the script by Michael Hirst was brilliant. I ended up spending 18 weeks on set helping to build this Elizabethan world and view of England. After that experience, I realized I preferred it to just making documentaries.
Do you ever work with the writer from the beginning stages of production?
Very often – I worked with Michael Hirst on Elizabeth, and many other productions such as The Tudors, Camelot, Vikings and both Elizabeth movies. Michael is fabulous because he writes character brilliantly and he’s very receptive to ideas for the set of it. So for Vikings, he wanted to do a show that highlighted the fact that the Vikings were not just a bunch of thugs that went around beating people up. It’s a very Egalitarian society – but he needed a story to hang it on and so he asked me. I suggested that he write about Ragnar and his children as I’ve written about them in a book of mine. He took that on board and then bought all the characters to life. I provided what we knew about Ragnar and his children’s lives and he then breathed the life back into them. And that is the best way to work.
What is it like seeing your research and the books that you have written come to life?
That is the very best thing! On Vikings, we set some scenes in York, the old Anglian city of York. The art department was amazing – they went up there and took drawings and photographs of the Roman walls, then recreated the wall and built the buildings. I arrived in Ireland and about a quarter of the Anglian city of York was there. You could just go walk through the streets. Then, of course, they peopled it with all the extraordinary extras and then the main actors.
Do you have any advice for someone who is trying to break into the industry as a Historical Advisor?
The thing would be to start off studying History or Geography – a good research-based subject. The key to the job is to be able to find high-quality information, quickly – that production can rely on. It’s also all contract work – so they call me up at the start of the production and then the minute they are done with filming, I am unemployed again. So you need to have strings to your boat. I write books so that when I am done with a job, I don’t worry about being unemployed but focus on writing. Having a portfolio of jobs, allows you to do the things you love doing, rather than working an 8 to 5 which would probably kill me.
Let’s talk about QI – one of my favourite shows – how did you first get involved with them?
Through documentaries, strangely enough. The founder of QI, John Lloyd, had dinner with a Director I had previously worked with. He said he had an idea for an unusual quiz show in which nobody knew the answers and everything you thought you knew turned out to be wrong. The director said he knew me and thought I would be good for it. So John rang me up and asked if I fancied doing it. The whole point of the show is the fact that everything is interesting if you look at it the right way – there is no such thing as boring.
As a Writer, what do you contribute to QI?
As a writer, I produce the history and some of the science information. I read History Today and a bunch of newspapers and magazines. When I find something interesting, I rip it out and stick it in a folder, but most of it comes from people I am talking to. Almost all my work for QI, I knick from other people – normally over a drink or having dinner with friends.
Along with being a Producer, Writer and Historical Advisor, you are also an Entrepreneur. You co-founded Unbound – what was your motivation behind starting it?
Along with being a Historical Advisor, I am also a writer – which helped because it gave me something else to do when I wasn’t working. I write popular history books – and at one stage, it started becoming noticeable that the advances one was getting offered were getting lower and lower. My friends Dan Kieran, John Mitchinson and I, came up with an idea to do crowdfunding for writers. The problem publishers have is that they pay in advance and most of the time they don’t get the money back because the book doesn’t do very well. They have no idea who buys the book at the end of the day. So we thought, if we could find the fans of the writers, then the fans could pay for the book – you are therefore talking to people who want what you write.
Is there a checklist that writers need to adhere to in order to be accepted by Unbound?
The editors go through a basic checklist – is it new material, is it publishable, legal checks, etc. We also check their social media background to see if it’s likely to find enough supporters to support the book – in essence, a fan base.
If you could go back to any period in history – what would it be and why?
I normally get asked which period would I most like to live in and the answer is always; now. I would always recommend to anyone if you have a choice as to which period of history you live in, try and live in the present. The medical care is better, the food is better – its definitely best to be alive now if you can. But for interest, Alexandria in Egypt in about 260/270BC, something like that – around the reign of Ptomely II. He was the son of one of Alexander The Great’s Generals. They rebuilt Alexandria which is part Greek, part Egyptian and Alexander The Great’s body was on show in a crystal coffin. Ptolemy started building one of the greatest libraries the world has ever seen and decided that he would collect a copy of every book in existence and he did. They were public philosophers, there was free education – it was a renaissance and one of the greatest times to be alive.
What can History teach us about the future?
It’s very difficult, isn’t it? You would hope that if history could teach us anything about the future, we would be doing better. But I think we could probably say that history has shown us that giving to much power to too few people as a bad effect. It is tempting to let someone else do all the work but it’s harder to do it all together. I think if history has taught me anything ( which it hasn’t ) it would be that it’s much harder to be in the middle ground than on the extremes. On the left and the right, you have people that tell you that they have all the answers ( who are usually more interested in promoting themselves ) and in the middle, you have to try and persuade everyone that its the best way to go forward. That is the hardest thing to do but I’m fairly certain its the best thing to do.
If you could Break The Ice with anyone, past or present, who would it be and why?
There are quite a few actually. It depends on the drink, the venue and who else is there. But if I had to choose someone, I would choose Hypatia, who was the last librarian at Alexandria. In the early Christian period, she was a Neoplatonist Philosopher – a Humanist really. She was a woman in charge of the greatest library in the world. There was an Archbishop named Cyril, who deeply disliked Hypatia. He disliked Neoplatonism and Pagan religion. He disliked women. He whipped up a crowd in the market place and dragged Hypatia from her work and tore her to pieces and then destroyed much of the library. That marked the beginning of the dark ages and the end of the ancient world. I would love to have known what she knew before that happened. She had so much knowledge of the ancient world.. so having a drink with her would be a wonderful thing to do.
Talent: Justin Pollard
Videography: Cors Media
Host: Kendal Olivia Barrett
Location: Whiskey Ginger