Lucy Worsley: History For The People

As a History student, I am a fan of Lucy Worsley. This may not seem surprising, but within academic circles she is a controversial figure. Her love of the dressing up box and, as she describes it, the “nitty-gritty” means that some accuse her of ‘dumbing down’ for the public. This is indicative of a wider problem that academic history has with television history, which some people view as second rate. There is a perception that the history documentaries of today are inferior in quality and integrity to the ‘serious history’ of books, and that Worsley is the prime culprit. However, her latest programme, ‘Blitz Spirit with Lucy Worsley’, is one of the best examples I have seen of history of any kind, and I hope that it will go some way to prove not only how good Worsley is, but how valuable TV history can be.

At its heart, ‘Blitz Spirit’ is authentic, emotional and as good as any drama. I can imagine the anger in some history circles at my description of it as authentic, but by this I do not mean that it paints a faultless picture of the Blitz, rather that it is dominated by the accounts of those who were there. Too often, the horrors of the British Home Front are lost behind a myriad of voices, whether they are well-intentioned, like History teachers and academics, or using history for their own ends, like politicians. ‘Blitz Spirit’ counters this, hammering home the horrifying reality of the Blitz in a way I have never seen before. Using actors and dramatic techniques (often frowned upon in history documentaries), to relay the shocking words of six 1940s Londoners, we are left in no doubt that the Blitz is far more than the sterile, patriotic myth that surrounds it.

‘Blitz spirit’ is such a vivid part of our collective memory as a nation; a signifier for coming together and ploughing on in times of hardship. However, as Worsley points out, the story is far more nuanced. Iconic images like ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ and the milkman walking through the rubble are shown to not quite be as they seem, something that is crucial and fascinating. As Worsley herself says, “we owe it to the people who were there to make the reality of their experience count” and the frankly tiresome, constant references to ‘Blitz spirit’ as a clear parallel to responses to the Covid-19 pandemic in the last 12 months demonstrate that historians have not yet cut through well enough into the public sphere to be able to do that. There was community spirit and resilience, but there was also division and total fear which should not be hidden away. She may be sneered at by some, but if Worsley can cut through the noise and bring some truth back to our nation’s narrative, then she is performing a far more important service than her haters.

In a time of increasing misinformation, the public want to discover the realities of the past. Undeniably we love stories, but we also have an innate desire for the truth. Presented poorly, this can be heavy-going and unappealing, but Lucy Worsley is one of the best in the business for delivering history engagingly, and ‘Blitz Spirit’ is the best example of why she is so good. Television historians like Worsley are able to reach the public in a way that so many seem unable to. They are not always serious, but they can be, and anyway, we should never lose sight of the joy in learning history.

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Matthew Stothard

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October 2021
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