David Starkey at Exeter College
His first television appearance was on David Starkey’s Behave Yourself in the 1970s. They needed a historian apparently — and of all the ones the team could find, he was supposedly ‘the least boring’.
That was how David Starkey proudly recounted his media debut on Wednesday night, and the laughter it caused set a precedent for the rest of the evening. Exceedingly entertaining, and brilliantly witty, Starkey struck a deft line between wooing his audience and making a serious point: a point about the validity of media in academia.
Starkey’s talk quickly became more of a discussion, or in his words, ‘more like Question Time but without David Dimbleby’s protuberant bottom’. Starting with a brief account of his childhood and family background, he quickly moved on to the subject of history at university; in his case, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. Starkey’s focus was what he called the ‘high analytical’ school of post‐1950s history, a school which relied heavily on evidence and emphasised historians’ detachment.
A school, for Starkey, which ran completely counter to common sense.
‘I think most historians are boring,’ he said: ‘Really, seriously, boring. They are eminently forgettable, and likely to end up with an extremely small and dismissive obituary in The Times. Or maybe The Guardian’, he then added. ‘History’, he said, ‘is the succession of events in time; the very notion of causation depends upon narrative’, making ‘the essence of the subject best served in media, not in the universities’.
Starkey’s argument was, of course, not uncontroversial; but with hilarious references such as those to his friends in re-enactment societies — ‘terribly into uniforms’ (cough) — it was frankly impossible to get too cross with him.
Starkey is most famous for his studies of Tudor England, and his widely acclaimed Channel 4 series Monarchy is set to return later this year.