A glance at the Wikipedia entry for Alice Roberts makes a daunting read. “Anatomist, osteoarchaeologist, physical anthropologist, palaeopathologist, television presenter and author,” it announces, before adding: “She is Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham.”
All of it is accurate but it makes her sound a tad worthy, whereas in person it becomes apparent that her Twitter bio offers the big clue to the real Alice Roberts. It gives her location not as Somerset, where she lives with her husband and two young children, but “Crypt of Lieberkuhn”. Um, so that’s… where, exactly?
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For the first of many times, Roberts, 44, laughs conspiratorially. “I love that so much in human anatomy sounds like a mythical landscape out of Indiana Jones,” she smiles. “Actually the Crypt of Lieberkuhn is an area in the intestines where enzymes are produced. I want to inform people and educate them, but I do like a bit of discombobulation.”
That sense of mischief extends to her own funeral arrangements. “I plan to confuse future archaeologists by being buried in a crouching position in a stone-lined cist [an ancient coffin], with some handmade glass beads and a little coil pot,” she says.
“People were last buried like that in the Bronze Age, and I want future archaeologists to find me and wonder about the resurgence of an ancient religion after a gap of 3,000 years.” She hoots in satisfaction.
“Accessible” has become a dread word when television seeks to popularise big subjects, but Roberts really does make science invitingly approachable. Since she was first on Channel 4’s Time Team in 2001, she has variously delved into the lives of woolly mammoths, traced the coastline around Britain, gone in search of ancient Celts, charted seven million years of human evolution, and much more.
“My work can sound worthy, but actually I just love uncovering stories from the past, weaving them together and sharing them,” she explains, her voice gravelly with a winter cold as she cups a black coffee between her palms. “Increasingly, I think of myself as a storyteller, and what I love most is that they’re real stories, as exciting as any fiction.”
Her latest project is illuminating some of Britain’s most historic towns for a forthcoming series on Channel 4, discovering how six of the nation’s urban sites were shaped over centuries, using cutting-edge CGI to melt away current landscapes and bring history to life.
“In Belfast, seeing that deeper reality painted on screen by CGI was thrilling, because in early Victorian times it was a small town without a port,” she says. “And I loved learning that Chester was part of a plan the Romans had to invade Ireland, but they were diverted by troubles elsewhere in the Empire so it didn’t happen.
“I also got to touch the Winchester Bible [the finest of all 12th-century English bibles, housed in Winchester Cathedral] – the vellum pages must be turned every three months by ungloved hands or else they deteriorate.
“I loved engaging with that physical reality of the past still in evidence. I fear that future archaeologists will find a dense layer of plastic as a remnant of the early 21st century,” she says, then grins, “But I like to think of them pondering that we worshipped gods represented as tiny figurines in many of our houses… interpreting Lego people as ritual objects.”
Roberts didn’t always want to be a biological anthropologist. Growing up in Bristol as the daughter of an aeronautical engineer and an art teacher, she took after her mother’s skills by winning the Blue Peter Young Artist competition aged 15, which saw her appear on the Radio Times cover in 1988. (“Incredibly exciting,” she remembers. “I still have that issue.”)
She considered a career in art, but already had ambitions to become a surgeon. Qualifying in 1997, she left medicine after only 18 months, having met her future husband, field archaeologist David Stevens, at Cardiff University.
She spent a decade teaching anatomy at Bristol University, by which time television and books had long since intervened. Her seventh book, Tamed, came out last October and she is now working on two more. Current television plans include a programme on King Arthur, a two-year study of the archaeological dig along the HS2 route, and a series called Perfect Body that attempts to engineer a flawless human form.
She’s fast becoming one of television’s big thinkers, among broadcasting’s key communicators of complex material. As such it’s intriguing to get her take on a breadth of subjects. On gender fluidity, for example, she muses, “It’s odd that we have defined gender in such dogmatic terms – nothing in biology is cut and dried. There aren’t two [gender] categories. There is a continuum. And even if we find a gene to explain a particular biological phenomenon, that doesn’t change the human experience. We must always listen to the individual.”
Given her post at Birmingham University, the debate on “safe spaces” in higher learning is closer to home. “We must recognise the value in engaging with perspectives other than our own,” she states. “It’s tied in with the idea of censorship. University has always exposed people to lots of different, challenging opinions. But there isn’t a blanket ethical answer. Each case must be looked at individually, to decide if it’s better for people to be protected. But it’s surely better to listen and challenge. For me, having everyone agree with me isn’t important. I want to share ideas and stimulate discussion.”
Not all her debating experiences have been positive. Exhibit A: Nicky Campbell’s Sunday morning BBC1 show The Big Questions. “I was once invited onto a debate where I was told it would be even-handed, with a diversity of people there. But there weren’t. When I tried to find common ground, the person running the debate was not interested and wanted to stimulate a bust-up.
“I couldn’t get up and leave as it was on television… I was really unhappy and felt I’d been stitched up. The producers were mystified when I told them. I’m never going back on there.”
It’s difficult to imagine Roberts’s gifts for communication falling on stony ground. Yet a recent Cambridge University study of 3,000 volunteers found that attractive science presenters are considered to be more interesting but less competent than nerdy-looking ones. “That’s unfortunate,” sighs Roberts. “Oh dear. We do tend to use stereotypes in our approach to the world. We need to guard against it. It’s part of that need to categorise the world around us, but it’s not always right.”
She herself is a woman of contrasts. On the one hand, she declares “commonality with Brian Cox, Jim Al-Khalili, Adam Rutherford and others – academics passionate about the communication of science”.
Even on a country walk in her down time, she likes “to find evidence of our ancient ancestors in the landscape”; and her own most enjoyed recent TV viewing included the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on BBC4, along with – of course, like everyone – Blue Planet II.
But it turns out that Professor Alice Roberts – anatomist, osteoarchaeologist, biological anthropologist, palaeopathologist and what have you – likes experimenting with vivid hair dye, and is currently in a crimson phase.
“In the Time Team days I had it pink and purple, and this is my wildest colour since then. Last spring I just felt like a change so I did this. My four-year-old son completely freaked out. When I explained it was dyed, he asked if it would ever be alive again.”
He and his seven-year-old sister join in, though, on the frequent occasions their mother is to be found dancing round the family’s Somerset kitchen to Nirvana. “I’m trapped in 90s grunge. The kids like Radio 1 but I’m more of a BBC 6 Music person.”
Moreover, Roberts yearns to take her dancing beyond the kitchen. “I’ve been shortlisted twice for Strictly Come Dancing,” she breathes, lowering her voice to reverence. “I’d do it like a shot. It’s all incredibly secret. The first time, I met a producer who quizzed me about my dance prowess, which is zero. I failed Grade One ballet, which I don’t think anyone else ever has. The second time my agent was simply told I was shortlisted. So excited each time. But then… no. Devastating.”
She’s laughing, while adopting a comical wail. “Why? Why? I could be that person on the show! Voted off in week one!”
Even the hours of weekly training would pose no challenge to her already exhausting schedule, she says, as “I’m so bad that I’m bound to be out straight away”.
But it has occurred to her that some notably ungifted dancers make it through week after week. “I know,” she grins. “So for the past couple of years I’ve tried very hard to keep my forward planning diary clear for autumn, when Strictly is on. You know… just in case.”
Prehistoric Autopsy is on Thursday 10.00pm BBC4, and Alice Roberts’s new series, Britain’s Most Historic Towns, is coming soon to C4