There is one big problem with putting British history on television, and it’s this: we all know the stories that we enjoy hearing about, and we all know the stories we… well, it’s not that don’t like them, it’s just that we don’t ever think that much about them.
There are only really three or four bits of British history that everyone knows, and loves, and which are replayed through TV shows, films, plays and books again and again. You know what they are. Every primary-school child in Britain knows what they are. Historian Lucy Worsley acknowledges what they are, in a flash. “Henry VIII, the Nazis, Queen Victoria… and then maybe the Civil War. And the Georgians… would come fifth. Or sixth.”
Which is a problem for Worsley, she of the sly smile, bobbed hair and soft “R” which belies a super-sharp mind. The 40-year-old chief curator of the Historical Royal Palaces is currently negotiating the challenge of promoting Georges I, II, III and IV in a slew of exhibitions across London, and in a new series on BBC4. And no one knows very much about them.
It was a self-elected challenge, however. She says it dawned on her about five years ago that 2014 was the 300th anniversary of the arrival of the glorious Georges to the British throne, and she has been focusing on George promotion ever since.
“The trouble is that the Georges are almost indistinguishable to the naked eye,” she says wistfully. “If you have no idea who they are, you can remember them as Bad, Sad, Mad, and Fat.” But this isn’t good enough for Worsley. She wants us to know the Hanoverians as well as we know their family friends the Tudors. “The whole point of our exhibitions and programmes is just to put a bit of human flesh onto these bones.”
This is, of course, Worsley’s special skill. She seems to glory in the fleshy part of history. As we walk through the exhibition in Hampton Court, which opens on 17 April, she points out a portrait of Mustapha, one of George I’s two Turkish valets. Apparently one of his key tasks was to treat the king’s haemorrhoids. It’s a typical Worsley detail: human, unforgettable and a little bit rude. “Well, let’s face it. Who isn’t interested in haemorrhoids?” she asks demurely. Yes, kinds are human beings, aren’t they?
In the opening programme Worsley shows just how very human the new German sovereign was. He stood for an early version of a “bicycling monarchy”. He didn’t spend a lot of money on flashy palaces. He liked culture for everyone, with his patronage of Handel, who wrote such magnificent public works. Not for George I the excesses of the French monarchy, who built the palace of Versailles, and thought they were only one remove from God; George made do with outdated quarters at Hampton Palace.
“It is hard to know their intentions, but you could read their minds as wanting to be on a level with the public,” says Worsley. “Pleased to meet you, not scary and certainly no need to inspire a revolution.”
Hanoverian George came to the throne in 1714 after the death of Queen Anne, his second cousin. And, thanks to his habit of going back to Germany all the time, George tended to let his parliament get on with it.
As Worsley explains, the whole concept of a cabinet being led by a prime minister really took off under George I, as did the notion of an opposition, born out of the two political factions reflecting an unhappy rivalry between George and his son the Prince of Wales.
Worsley is pretty good at conveying all of these interesting areas of the Georgian world, helped by the historical artefacts that she so loves” a tiny silver bell, rung during George I’s coronation, or the golden bedroom slippers of George IV. Yet, because we don’t really know much about the Hanoverians, the programme is rather light on analysis and quite heavy on what one might call family tree exposition. George was, after all, 52nd in line to the British throne when it was decided that he should be put on it.
“It was a tough sell,” Worsley says of the show. “Nobody knows who the Georges are. And from the start their importance, even in their lifetime, was downplayed. Parliamentarians and courtiers wanted to minimise their importance, because they were royal by invitation.”
Fortunately, Worsley leavens the family tree stuff with gallons of down-to-earth detail. She takes me through the details of Queen Caroline (married to George II) who had an utterly horrendous death, during which her bowel was apparently drawn out of her body via a hernia, and pieces snipped out on a daily basis. “It’s such a juicy story on so many levels,” says Worsley, almost salivating with excitement.
Does she think she could get her teeth not just into British history but the history of the planet? After all, the director-general of the BBC, Tony Hall, has spoken of his intention to bring Kenneth Clark’s landmark 1969 series Civilisation back to television. Could such a project be steered onto the airwaves by Worsley’s light touch, ambition and twinkling zeal for history?
“I would like to see an anti-Civilisation!” she laughs. “I am always looking for the seamy underbelly in any kind of history. And you are already on the side of the subversive, just by being female.”
Does she feel any competition against her fellow female TV historians? Not a bit. “I am very proud of being in the company of Amanda Vickery and Mary Beard. Wow!”
Well, never mind about Civilisation. Her civilised credentials are certainly about to be tested in a new way. “When I got married two years ago, my husband made me sign a prenuptial contract saying I would never appear on Strictly Come Dancing. Which I always thought was a bit of a shame, because I would quite like to be on Strictly. And I have been looking for a way around this.” She pauses theatrically. “And it has come to pass. I’m going to be in a programme called History Come Dancing. I’m learning dances from the past. Square dances, polkas, waltzes. I have just been doing the Charleston.”
How on earth will Mr Worsley cope? “He says I have broken the spirit of the agreement. But I have not broken the letter of the law. I am so excited about it!”
Sounds as if Worsley might be on her way towards full-time on-screen entertainer status, I suggest. But she won’t have any of it. “Television and curating work together. But I want to stick to history and what I know about. I’m a curator first off. And my work here is what matters. If I had to choose, I would definitely stay here. No question.”
As we walk together through Hampton Court a spooky shadowy profile of a woman in a Tudor headdress moves spectrally along a wall. “Have you seen the ghost of Catherine Howard?” asks Worsley mischieviously. “It really makes people jump! We used an intern as the model. Imagine coming to work as an intern here and ending up as the ghost of Catherine Howard.”
I would imagine coming to work at Hampton Court and finding Worsley was your boss was just as exciting.