The title of this series is a strange one. Surely, something this tautological can’t be serious history? But we gave it a lot of thought and, ultimately, the title explains exactly where the heart of these programmes lie.
The programmes you hear on Radio 4 are about memory and the ownership of history. When Dr Chris Williams from the OU and I were trying to get the programme commissioned two years ago, the analogue I used was a modern one: when you look at the news reports tonight on television – how do you know what you are being told is the real news? Well, I’m bound to say, here at the BBC, we take news gathering seriously and you’re very likely to get a representative take on the day’s events – but often events that grab the headlines obscure other events that either we don’t know about or that are being concealed from journalists. History is just the same, the number of interpretations the events have been subjected to are exponential – politics, memory, personal ambition, nationalism, expedience all act as prisms that can distort the very moment we want to examine.
So, at its centre, this series is about looking at some of the canonical events of history – events that start the chapters in the textbooks about British history if you like – and interrogating their myth. The mantra in the production office is clear - does the sheer gravitational pull of that moment distort the other, equally important events around it, and has our collective memory of the event been manipulated by later generations? To borrow a phrase from our modern politics – we are trying to see through the spin of history.
When I did my degree in history in the late eighties, revisionism was the buzz phrase. I cut my historical molars on savaging “the accepted truth” about the Reformation and the Tudor Court. Now, revisionism can go too far, but the question it leaves, namely “can I trust the king/politician/historian who’s telling me the story?” is a valid one. The answer is usually no.
It is that spirit that animates the two series of The Things We Forgot To Remember. Just because we think we know all about the Spanish Armada – Drake and his bowls, the glorious protestant victory – why don’t we remember the other three armadas and the decades of war that nearly destroyed Elizabethan England? You might think that Londoners in the 1880s were terrified by the shadow figure stalking the East End, who became known as Jack the Ripper – but do you know that what most Londoners feared that year was social revolution and a repeat of the riots that became known as Bloody Sunday? You might think it was the Battle of Britain that saved this country from invasion in 1940 – but we forget that any invasion would have needed a superiority on the sea, rather than the in the air, and by destroying the French fleet at Mers El Kebir, the Royal Navy did as much, if not more to secure the nation. But killing 1500 French sailors is not the glorious victory Churchill wanted us to remember.
As a producer, it’s my job to structure these programmes and to tell the story in a way that not only makes sense, but that is as rigorous as it can be in half an hour of airtime. We first present the listener with a sense of how an event is currently remembered – a foggy London and top-hatted psychopath in the Jack the Ripper programme that opens this new series for example – then we introduce the alternative event – the thing we have forgotten to remember. But the final and crucial part of the argument comes next and answers a question that should have arisen in the listeners’ minds… “if this is so important, why have we forgotten about it?” It is here that some of the most revealing facts about the “spin” of the event are laid bare.
You might ask, if this is a revisionist series, why isn’t it revisionist historians who present the programmes? I thought about it. But what I really wanted was someone who would be as surprised by the revelations as I hope our listeners are. Michael Portillo is a historian by education and has spent a career in government. His political persuasion might make you think that he is naturally predisposed to see history from the standpoint of the status quo. But, in reality, Michael is intellectually very curious, and having been close to the levers of state he is very well placed to understand how events can become projected or obscured by those with an agenda. In the battle for memory, having a poacher turned gamekeeper is a great advantage to the series.
It’s a great privilege to be allowed to step back in time and inhabit the minds of the men and women who were living the history and hopefully, bring a little more perspective and honesty to some of the events we think we all know. Of course, in a few years time, someone will come along and revise the revisers – but such is the thrill of studying history…