Amanda Vickery very kindly agreed to let me interview her about her BBC TV series At Home with the Georgians,which is enjoying such great success on BBC2 presently. I thought you might like to read her fascinating replies to my mundane questions before the last episode of the series airs on BBC2 on Thursday evening…so here it is.
The series is based on your book, “Behind Closed Doors” which I loved. Obviously you could not include all your real life characters in the 3 hour series so, when you were writing the series, what were your criteria for including a person’s story from the book?
The first challenge was to boil Behind Closed Doors (at a doorstopper 140,000 words) down to three one hour programmes. We carved it up into three big themes: Making Homes, Filling Homes & Protecting Homes. My key aim was to give each programme a strong over-arching theme. I had lots of meetings with Liz Hartford the series producer and Ross Wilson the executive producer from Matchlight films chewing over what would be the clearest thought-line – legible enough for non experts to enjoy without head scratching, but not so simplified as to do violence to the subtleties of history. However much I loved my characters if they didn’t serve the argument they didn’t make the cut. I especially regretted the loss of the rebellious Duchess of Grafton who strove to retain her standing in London as a separated wife. Alas. Another issue which governed our choices was whether there was enough visual material to support a TV case study. It is highly unusual for house, manuscripts and portraits to survive for individuals below the level of the greater gentry. Neil Crombie, the director of programme one ‘A Man’s Place’, was dismayed at first by the lack of beautiful well-preserved interiors in which to film. (John Courtney’s Beverly town house is no more; Wivenhoe is now a conference centre; Gertrude Savile’s Rufford Hall is a ruin etc etc.) But Neil and the wonderful researcher Eleanor Scoones were ingenious at finding ways around the absence.
They searched out the paintings hidden away in private collections of a mature Gibbs and Ryder – which I had never seen and encountered for the first time on camera. We went back to the manuscripts, the archives and I swanned about the surviving Georgian streets of Beverley and Exeter, Spitalfields and the Inns of Court. The dramatic reconstructions gave us visual diversity and a bit of relief from me talking to camera!
What was your favourite of all the stories you featured in the series and why?
For excruciating humour it has to be Dudley Ryder. We had over an hour of film of me pouring over the diary and responding to his ambivalences. I think barely 3 minutes were left in. As a feminist as well as a historian, and as a lover of realist novels, I have always felt it was important to understand the full humanity of men as well as women. Very few of the gents I have researched were the cardboard patriarchs of older theories. In fact, as bachelors they seem so self-conscious, gauche and half-baked it’s a wonder they ever headed up households.
Ryder went on to become solicitor general, but you would never have foreseen this from reading the diary he wrote in code aged 24. But I adore John Courtney too. In my mind’s eye he was something of a Mr Collins – deaf to female signals, desperate to be debonair and facing eight rejections with undiminished astonishment: “I was thunderstruck”.
What audience were you trying to reach with this series? Were you trying to reach people who are history nuts and have read your book or a completely new audience- for example, people who are fans of adaptations of Austen/Bronte/Gaskell novels not necessarily readers of the novel or indeed of serious history books?
I was asked to do the series by Janice Hadlow head of BBC2, who is writing her own 18th century history and who liked Behind Closed Doors as well as my first book The Gentleman’s Daughter. She enjoys characters, stories, details and arguments and thought viewers might too. The head of history at the BBC Martin Davidson hoped that I could make a series which would unlock a new audience for history programmes. All the surveys reveal that the current audience for history is predominantly male and middle-aged. Why should this be when women are the key audience for costume drama? Somehow a bifurcation of history has emerged on TV: putting it crudely, bonnets for the women and bombers for the men. I would love to reach an audience that wants to see a different sort of history (neither war nor Kings and Queens). I’m interested in producing documentaries which reflect what the history profession itself actually researches and teaches now. In BBC TV land, there is a vogue for “authoritative history” – i.e. history programmes written and presented by experts, rather than fronted by celebrities drafted in to go on a historical ‘journey’ of discovery or read a script written by the producer derived from textbooks. I was delighted to catch this wave.
Producers at radio 4 and BBC4 assume that the audience is keen on history. At BBC2 you can’t take that for granted. You simply cannot make programmes aimed just at 20,000 experts who have done all the background reading. The goal is entertainment and to draw a wide and varied audience into another world with colour and character, wit and pathos – all undergirded with a single driving argument. The BBC are thrilled with the result, as their investment in trailers testifies. What the audience makes of it is another matter of course. We have our fingers crossed that history refusniks as well as history buffs will switch on to discover that there’s more to history than tanks and tiaras. I am committed to a holistic history that embraces everywoman as well as everyman. I still sympathize with Catherine Morland. “Real solemn history I cannot be interested in… the quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences in every page; the men all so good for nothing and hardly any women at all.”
How pleased were you with the end result?
I am delighted with three programmes – each reflects a collaboration with a different director, each with their own style and tone – ‘A Man’s Place’ with the theatrical and brilliant Neil Crombie (who shared my sense of humour), ‘A Woman’s Touch’ with the searching documentary maker Iain Scollay (who tried to catch me at my most honest and unguarded) and ‘Safe as Houses?’ with the stylish Phil Cairney (whose direction combined the formality of Neil’s and the observation of Iain’s). I also learnt a lot from the director of photography Dirk Nel, who had worked with several different history presenters. He instilled great confidence in me – which is half the battle – while training me to hit my mark. I will never forget him chanting “FIND the light, Amanda, FIND the light” before I set off on one of my rambles down a murky corridor. Almost everything was ad libbed to camera, so I am relieved that I came out with some coherent sentences. The aim of Dirk and all the directors was to capture my personality on camera. My friends say I am recognizably myself so in one key respect they have succeeded.
How much influence did you have in the choice of actors, locations and music?
The locations were driven by my research and availability, the actors were chosen by a casting director, Eleanor Scoones the researcher, Liz Hartford, the series director and Neil Crombie (who directed the reconstructions). All of them had read my book very closely – in the end I trusted to them. In an ideal world I would have directed the dramatic reconstructions myself! But even a control-freak diva has her moments of sanity and insight. The music was largely chosen by the directors, but I made my suggestions and had right of veto. Writing is a solitary process over which you exert total control, whereas TV is a collaboration with an army. You have to respect the talents and advice of your collaborators and accept that you are producing something which reflects them as well as you. Given my intellectual life (teaching apart) is quite hermetic, I loved working with a quick-witted and highly skilled production team. I am a gregarious person and relished the camaraderie. I also loved learning a new trade from them.
You allocated a whole chapter to Jane Austen in “Behind Closed Doors”. Do you consider her to have been an accurate recorder of late 18th early /19th century life? Did you find any of her plots/characters reflected in any of your real diarists’ lives?
I tried not to treat Austen’s work simply as descriptive evidence from which I could cherry pick juicy quotes to back up my arguments. Literary scholars are always accusing historians of simplistic cut and paste. But it is clear that Austen assumed that her readers were sensitive to the implications of taste and interior decoration. She relied on them to take domestic details (like Darcy’s gift of a piano to his sister, or General Tilney’s over-bearing choices of breakfast cups) as reliable signs of character. Even silly little tables had meaning.
Austen also relied on the social, economic and emotional importance her readers would attach to the drama of setting up home. When it comes to history, I hope my readers will make the same leap, and agree that domesticity is a universal subject, not a frivolous topic to be dismissed and patronized.
As for characters on TV, I rather enjoyed inserting Jane Austen herself into the narrative. She appears first as an anonymous spinster, living in what historians call a ‘spinster cluster’ in a small grace and favour cottage hard by the main road. Austen lovers will instantly recognize Chawton, but plenty of editors at the BBC were surprised when we revealed the impoverished sister to be none other than Austen herself. I wanted to show that however mocked by satire, the spinster’s life is no less heroic and productive than that of the smug marrieds.
Do you have another TV or radio project in the pipeline? If yes, can you tell us anything about it?
I am working on another Voices of the Old Bailey series with Elizabeth Burke of Loftus to be broadcast next summer on BBC radio 4, and we have been commissioned to produce a six part history of men and masculinity from the Medieval knight to the modern salary man. I am also working with BBC2 to develop longer span series which still aim to bring the Catherine Morlands of this world to an enjoyment of history. Floreat Clio!
Floreat Clio indeed, and may I add Floreat Amanda because I really do think our understanding of the lives Jane Austen chronicled would be considerably impoverished were it not for her scholarly endeavours. I should like to thank her for her patience and kindness in supplying me with such fabulous replies to my questions,even though at one point our computers stubbornly refused to talk to each other!
The final episode of At Home With The Georgians Airs on BBC2 Thursday 16th December at 9 p.m. I will be watching as usual and posting my review on Friday. Do watch it if you can. If you would like to embark on a reading project based around the programmes, Professor Vickery has kindly produced a short reading list, go here to see it (Do note many of the books will already be familiar to readers of this site!)
I do hope a DVD will soon be available, in the meantime enjoy: the series will remain available to “view again” for another week.