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To devotees of the vintage BBC comedy panel game ‘I’m Sorry I haven’t A Clue,’ all journeys end at Mornington Crescent. But to me it’s where my journey began; my journey through history. A friend had been taking evening classes at the Working Men’s College there and invited me to sit in one of the lectures. “You have to see this teacher, Dave. Mister Benjamin. The amazing way he brings the subject to life.” The idea hadn’t gripped me. “Can’t we just go to the pub, Del?”

The Working Men’s College had been founded in 1854 by a group of Christian Socialists including Thomas Hughes, author of ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays.’ Hughes’ book had been based on the inspirational work of the headmaster of Rugby School, Thomas Arnold, whose ideas on education and cultural advancement influenced generations of educators through to the present day (on a lighter note it also spawned both the best-selling Flashman series of historical novels and J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry). The Working Men’s College is Europe’s oldest surviving centre for Adult Education, and, of course, the first place I saw Mr Benjamin in action. He was truly a force of nature, and almost half a century on I can still remember that amazing whirlwind of ideas, observations, poetry and Music Hall Songs. Then, a couple of years later, and in large part influenced by that night in Camden (Del and I did have beers afterwards) I enrolled in the History A-Level course at Kingston College -only to find my principal lecturer would be …Mr Benjamin.

Over the following months, I got to learn something of Mr Benjamin’s own history. A travelling salesman, approaching thirty years of age and with a young family, he found that he was more interested in the stories of the towns he drove through than actually selling stuff. So he ditched the job, and took a degree at University College, London, founded by Jeremy Bentham, 1747 – 1832, the ‘Father of Utilitarianism (who coined the idea of ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number,’ invented the words ‘minimize’ and maximize,’ and, weirdly, invented the now-ubiquitous exercise we know as ‘jogging’). As a key figure in the Student Union, Mr Benjamin would join Mr Bentham for dinner once a year (the latter having had his body stuffed and donated to the college) and here the students would raise a glass (or six) to their benefactor, mummified in a glass case at the head of the table.

Now it must be said that you were never likely to achieve top marks in national exams by quoting Mr Benjamin. Try building an essay around his theory (fully documented) that the expansion of the British Empire was in large part due to Thomas Doulton’s invention of six-inch-salt glaze pipe. This disruptive technology, which is still the gold-standard for sanitation plumbing as I write today, meant that surrender to the dastardly red-coats brought with it clean drinking water, flush toilets and the elimination of killer water-borne diseases such as cholera. Or, similarly, try quoting Mr Benjamin’s impersonation of Marie Lloyd, the Queen of the Music Hall, performing the respectable Victorian parlour song ‘Come, into the garden, Maude, transformed into a sexually charged ‘Come …into the to the garden, Maude,’ to a shocked Lord Chamberlain, the government’s theatre censor, in order to convince him that obscenity was a matter of intent, not content. But what he did give students (like me) was a love of history that has burned brightly ever since. Carrying me through the Greek pioneers (Herodotus to Xenophon to Thucydides) the Romans (Livy, Tacitus and Suetonius) across the dark ages (the Venerable Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles) to the rediscovery of the classics (lovingly preserved in the libraries of North Africa) that fueled the renaissance.

Tudor and Stuart history followed (“Marx to the left of me, Starkey to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with Hume”) and still follow me through the streets of my beloved London in the most excellent company of Leigh Hunt (so good I named my daughter after him) before forking off into tropical climes for the ‘Black Napoleon’ (Toussaint Louverture) who crushed the forces of the White Napoleon (Bonaparte) which brought about a different ending for Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ than would have otherwise been the case (and, consequently no Eurovision success for Abba’s Waterloo). The faltering advance of democracy in Revolutionary France, Evolutionary England and the ‘Precautionary’ United States, consciously modelling their political constitution on what the history books taught them about the ancient Roman model in order to ensure checks and balances -only the scrolls don’t seem to have forewarned them about the perils of Bushes and Trumps.

Social history marched along side by side with the headlines, telling the more human story of the lives of the people who lived through the various periods, rather than just the highly-spun ballads of kings and queens, battles and treaties. All this was due to Mr Benjamin (later Dr Benjamin) and his inspirational teaching.

Now I’m conscious that there will be some listeners who regard this love of history as a somewhat anorakish perversion. And there will be others who may question its very inclusion in this series. So here’s a potted history of History’s role in The Business of Pleasure:

‘Chapter One’ features the legendary best-sellers; The Bible, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and The Iliad and The Odyssey, titles which have been delighting audiences for millennia (as well as gifting Charlton Heston a screen career). Alexander The Great was such an avid fan of Homer’s Iliad that he never went anywhere without a copy -and Alex went everywhere in the then known world, inspired to world domination by the exploits of Achilles and Hector, Ajax and Odysseus, Agamemnon and Priam.

Chapter Two, for the English-speaking world, saw the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood, Merlin and Weyland The Smith (no relation to Morrissey) give way to that serial populariser of history, William Shakespeare. The Bard of Avon roamed far and wide in search of historical characters and events to fill the playhouses of London, from Julius Caesar (himself a celebrated Historian) to Anthony and Cleopatra (of Carry-On Cleo fame) not to mention the ten English ‘Histories.’ My only wonder is that, as a student of history (thanks be to Mr Benjamin) how could Shakespeare include so many stodgy monarchs and still miss out the most interesting King of England of the lot, Henry VII? Could it possibly be because the victor of Bosworth was born in Wales not Windsor?

For ‘Chapter Three’ I’ll move forward into my own personal history and the four decades I spent working in Musical Theatre. Historical tales have been dominating that genre for more than half a century, on both sides of the Atlantic. From Camelot to Cabaret, Oliver! to Hamilton, by way of Evita, Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, My Fair Lady and Miss Saigon, right through to current Tudor mega-mix Six (perhaps Henry VII’s big mistake wasn’t so much his nationality as his monogamy?)

‘Chapter Four’ would naturally lead us into ‘History as TV.’ Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies have been massive hits as novels, on stage and TV (although personally I cannot bring myself to watch the BBC version, to be honest, because much as I admire Mark Rylance, I don’t want his Thomas Cromwell to overlay the memory of the Ben Miles’ stage version. Of course, alternative or ‘insider’ versions of history are themselves hugely popular with television audiences, from I Claudius to The Crown to Bridgerton. Even the buckler-ripping Game of Thrones was based on the historical battles of The War of the Roses, which, as everyone knows, wasn’t won by any mystical Bran Stark or Emmy-award-winning Tyrion Lancaster, but by, you guessed it, a twenty-three-year old Henry VII.

The history book I’m currently reading is David Hendy’s brilliant ‘The BBC, A People’s History,’ which charts the story of the three-man ‘start-up’ through to its current unchallenged position, a century later, as, arguably, the world’s most trusted source of truth. The major challenges the corporation faced back in 1922 were exactly the same as they face today; how do you strike a balance between informing and entertaining, whilst simultaneously keeping the Government of the day off your back? (Winston Churchill led a personal and political vendetta against the BBC for three decades, and spectacularly failed to clip its wings, so what chance does Boris Johnson stand?). But back in 1922, when the corporation was just a trio of shell-shocked war veterans renting an office at 2 Savoy Hill (overlooking The Queen’s Chapel, 1502, …Henry VII again). And foremost (and tallest) of the three start-up upstarts was John Reith. The ‘father’ of the BBC was himself the son of a Minister of the Church of Scotland, and Hendy lays great emphasis on the early influence of reforming Victorian thinkers such as Educationalist Matthew Arnold (whose disciple, Thomas Hughes, had been co-founder of the Working Men’s College where I first encountered Mr Benjamin) in the development of Reith’s own ideas. Hendy writes: “For Arnold, the only hope of salvation was culture, which involved cultivating ‘all sides of our humanity’ through the pursuit of wisdom and beauty -or, as he put it, ‘sweetness and light.’ It was also about making sweetness and light prevail -making the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere. It was no good cultivating one’s own tastes: if the world was to be left ‘better and happier than we found it’ a person had to ‘carry others along’ in the march towards perfection, ‘continually doing all he can to enlarge and increase the volume of the human stream sweeping thitherward.’ ” Arnold’s vision thus became the BBC’s, translated by Reith into its century-long mission: “to inform educate entertain.” A mission that I hope lasts a hundred more centuries, in spite of the reforming zeal of Grade, Dorries and the like.

FOOTNOTE: It was at a party in the crypt of historic St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, that I met someone who could be said to be the physical embodiment of the BBC’s creed to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ within the realm of history, actor-presenter-activist Tony Robinson, whose television work spans the Blackadder’s Baldrick to Time Teamand The Worst Jobs in History. I smiled good-naturedly as I approached. He smiled back pleasantly.

“My children really hate you,” I told him to his face.

“Nice tie,” he replied, admiring my Fornasetti classic ‘Red-lips on Blue Background.’

“It’s because I’ve made them watch every single episode of Time Team, at least twice over,” I explained. “They’ve learned more about history through you than they ever did at school. So they hate you, but I thank you. Cheers!”

“Cheers!” Sir Tony raised his glass in reply.

Copyright David Thomas 2022


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