Posts in Category: TV

Why the Tudors mattered

Why did the Tudors matter? Funny you ask. I recently made this short film for Chalke Valley History Hub explaining just why I think they were, and are, so crucial.

Anne Boleyn and BBC Breakfast

On Wednesday 22nd May, I went on BBC Breakfast with Susanna Reid and Bill Turnbull to talk about the forthcoming programme, The Last Days of Anne Boleyn (airing 23 May 2013 at 9pm on BBC 2). If that wasn’t treat enough, I was also sitting on the famous red sofa when Jamie Cullum and his band struck up to sing us out. Boy, they’re good!

You can watch again here:

The Last Days of Anne Boleyn

On 19 May 1536, Anne Boleyn was executed on charges of adultery, incest and conspiring King Henry VIII’s death.

But what happened in those last days before her death? Why did Anne, and the five men accused with her, have to die?

A new in-depth drama-documentary on BBC 2 will explore the continuing controversy among historians. Rather wonderfully, rather than giving a single linear account, it recreates the historical debate that rages on. It makes for history at its most contentious and exciting.

It features seven historians and historical novelists: Dr David Starkey, Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory, Alison Weir, Prof. George Bernard, Prof. Greg Walker and me.

For anyone interested in Tudor history and in the extraordinary character of Anne Boleyn, this is unmissable.

It will air on 23 May 2013 at 9pm on BBC 2.

And if you want to know more, in progressively greater depth, do consult the following:



Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home

My new BBC 4 programme, ‘Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home’ airs on Wednesday 3 April at 9pm. You can watch it on iPlayer here.

I so enjoyed making it. I got to research some fascinating stories in the history of science and technology – and the social and human cost of progress – and to work with some really talented and generous scientists and historians. Here’s what it’s all about:

‘While the Victorians confronted the challenges of ruling an Empire, perhaps the most dangerous environment they faced was in their own homes. Householders lapped up the latest products, gadgets and conveniences but in an era with no health and safety standards they were unwittingly turning their homes into hazardous death traps. In a genuine horror story, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb reveals the lethal killers that lurked in every room of the Victorian home and shows how they were unmasked. What new innovation killed thousands of babies? And what turned the domestic haven into a ticking time bomb?’

It is my first authored programme and obviously took me far from my usual sixteenth-century territory, but I tried to compensate with copious amounts of research, into a period that has always intrigued me. I hope the nineteenth-century historians will forgive me!

I’m delighted that it was Pick of the Day in the Radio Times, The Times, The Guardian and The Independent, and particularly chuffed that it was Pick of the Week on BBC History Magazine’s website.

My excellent contributors were: Dr Kate Williams, Judith Flanders, Dr Suzy Lishman, Prof. Andrew Meharg, Colin King, Matt Furber, Sarah Nicol, Dr Matthew Avison, Nathan Goss and Max Wagner.

The programme was made by Modern TV. It was produced and directed by Suzanne Phillips. The Executive Producers were Griff Rhys Jones, Liz Hartford and Sarah Broughton. The rest of the team were: Camera – Tudor Evans; Researcher – Celyn Williams; Sound – Brian Murrell; Production Assistant – Alyn Farrow; Junior Production Manager – Katy Daykin; and Photography – James Jones.

Thank you to everyone for all their work on it. Particular thanks are due to Griff Rhys Jones who first thought of the idea of me making a documentary with his production company.

Bloody Tales

Bloody Tales series 2 goes out today at 8pm on National Geographic Channel, and we’ve attracted our fair share of coverage. We’re, amazingly, pick of the day in the Radio Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, Total TV Guide and Sky Online.

Tonight’s episode, ‘Executions’, features stories about the deaths of Nazi commander, Amon Goeth – played by Ralph Fiennes in the film Schindler’s List – Scottish hero William Wallace and Viking warrior Ragnar Lodbrok. It really makes for some bloody – and hopefully, fascinating – viewing.

The Daily Mail have also covered our groundbreaking discoveries about Goeth’s death online.

Richard III: the king in the car park

Well, hasn’t this all been fun? Medieval history hitting the news! Stop press for the 15th century!

There’s much to say about the discovery of Richard III’s bones, but as many people are saying it, for now, here’s my tuppence worth:

On BBC 2′s Newsnight with director Sir Richard Eyre and Kirsty Wark:

And in the London Evening Standard:

Bloody Tales on DVD

Just as we start to film the second series, I was delighted to discover, quite by chance, that Bloody Tales of the Tower has been made into a DVD, which goes on sale in mid-October 2012.

I think the best comment came from a friend on Twitter who admired the ‘corpse hunter CSI Tower Hill’ look of the cover.



Time Team Reflections


Over this summer, I’ve been the contributing historian on four Time Team programmes, which I’ve told you about before (see more photos and videos here), but I haven’t before commented much on the process.

Three of the sites I worked on were Tudor – houses owned by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey near Watford and Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk at Henham Park, and the third, a copper mine in the Lake District that was started under Elizabeth I – and one was Norman – an Anglo-Norman castle in Pembrokeshire.

The experience has been exceptionally enjoyable.

The Time Team crowd is a good one, full of experienced and professional people with deep and thorough expertise – be it in archaeology, ceramics, metalwork, production or presenting. I have learnt much from their example, and benefited from their generous friendship.

There is also a very high level of research behind each shoot: what you see on screen is the tip of the iceberg.

To give you an example: on the last shoot – the Elizabethan copper mines at Coniston – I prepared myself by reading around the subject and was sent, before filming, a pack of extra articles and documents to bring myself up to speed on the niceties of early modern mining.

But, on top of this, on location, researcher Celyn Williams and I worked through photographs of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century manuscripts of (among others):

  • the charter creating the Company of Mines Royal in the name of Queen Elizabeth I
  • surveys commissioned by Elizabeth I
  • letters written by the German miner who founded the mines, Daniel Hoeckstetter
  • parish registers for 1590-1620

This was genuine historical research, and the fruits of it – and not all the hard graft behind the scenes – is what appears on screen: historical research complementing the archaeological discovery unfolding over the three days. The two together brought results that were surprising and salutary, and it was very rewarding to have been a part of uncovering this history. Hopefully you too will find it all as enjoyable to watch.

The new series will air in early 2013.

The Book Show Royal Special

It was a real treat to spend a morning filming at Blenheim Palace, the setting of films like Young Victoria, for The Book Show Royal Special. The film aired just before the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, on 31 May 3012 (and is still, at the time of writing, available on Sky On Demand).

I was giving my take on representations of the royalty on screen and page. How have films and novels shaped our ideas of the royalty? If, as I suspect, quite a lot, do they have a responsibility to be accurate? Does it matter if they’re not?

An illustrious panel, made up of historians Andrew Roberts, Kate Williams and Andrew Marr, along with The Book Show host Mariella Frostrup, went on to discuss these issues in greater depth.

It was particularly nice to discover that the Handel’s grand Zadok the Priest was my musical accompaniment.



Time Team

In the last month, I’ve had tremendous fun being part of two Time Team digs in Suffolk and Hertfordshire. We’ve been searching for lost Tudor manor houses, one belonging to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and one to Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk.

I made a couple of little videos for the Time Team blog.

I’m looking forward to joining the Team again later in the year!







Daily Mail’s Screen Detective

The Daily Mail has reviewed tonight’s Bloody Tales (Nat Geo, 8pm), with a great run-through of its gory tales. Mark Wareham figures out the derivation of ‘ketchup’ and spots my apparently ‘trendily studded nose’ in ‘dusty’, historical manuscripts, as per usual.

Pick of the Day!

Both Radio Times and TV Times have chosen tonight’s episode of Bloody Tales of the Tower as one of their Picks of the Day.

The Radio Times calls me and Joe Crowley ‘a comely duo’ (!) and describes the show’s ‘often grisly expose of torture and execution at the Tower of London’. It also has a feature on one of our stories – Josef Jakobs, the last man to be executed at the Tower of London.




The TV Times says that if you’re planning to visit the Tower of London, ’this series reveals its bloody history’ and gives the show 4 out of 5 stars.

Finally, Joe Clay at The Sunday Times (15/4/12) has chosen Bloody Tales as one of their digital choice picks.

Very pleased that three papers have chosen it as a highlight!

Airing on National Geographic Channel UK. Made by True North Productions.



Bloody Tales of the Tower Trailer

National Geographic have produced a rather swish trailer for our new series – Bloody Tales of the Tower – with me and Joe Crowley, which starts this Monday, 16th April, at 8pm!

If you have access to NatGeoTV, I hope you’ll be watching!

Sky News Sunrise for paper review

It was delightful to go into Sky News yesterday morning to review the papers with Eamonn Holmes, Charlotte Hawkins and Sam Delaney – even if it meant an eye-watering 4.30am start! This must explain why, as you’ll notice, I was still remembering how to speak in the first few minutes.

We talked about the proposed new A levels, the viewing habits of teenage murderer, Daniel Bartlam; Argentina’s president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s shoddy use of history and whether the Queen is a vampire.

My agent has kindly put a clip on YouTube (forgive the short shrift given to others…):



Bloody Tales of the Tower

I’ve just finishing filming a three-part series on the Tower of London. Made by production company True North, it will air on National Geographic in April 2012. My co-presenter was the brilliant Joe Crowley.

We explored some of the best and most fascinating stories associated with the Tower of London: from Anne Boleyn’s alleged adultery, to James Scott, Duke of Monmouth’s botched execution in 1685, and from Father John Gerard’s daring escape from the Tower in 1597, to the storming of the Tower by a huge mob of peasants in 1381. In each case we were challenging some of our basic assumptions about the Tower, and learning a lot along the way: even in areas where we thought we knew it all already!

I met a wonderful array of experts, including a former spy and a Home Office pathologist, explored the Tower’s defences, and got to look at some beautiful historical documents. I even spoke to a relative of the last person to be executed at the Tower (in 1941!) which was immensely moving. Joe learnt how to make an executioner’s axe, shot targets in a firing range, and scaled Tower 42! Clambering into priest holes, going to where Robert Catesby and the other Gunpowder Plots had their final shoot-out, and seeing the farmer’s field where German spy, Josef Jakobs, landed in Cambridgeshire, all brought home new perspectives on some familiar, and some unfamiliar, material.

Many of the nine cases we investigated fell within my area of specialism – the Tudors and Stuarts – so filming the series was a particular joy to me. Some of the documents that fascinated me most were letters from Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey (whom I’m convinced should henceforth be called Jane I) and Mary I in the crisis of July 1553. I also enjoyed reading the post-mortem report on Lady Arbella Stuart’s corpse in 1615, and several Acts of Attainder under Henry VIII, chiefly those against Thomas Cromwell and Katherine Howard.

I also read the oldest book I think I’ve ever held: a fourteenth-century account of Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury’s death by Thomas Walsingham, kept at the College of Arms. (It was great that my palaeographic skills came in so useful, but I admit that the one thing I wasn’t expecting to come away from the series with was a conviction that I must improve my Latin!)

It was also particularly amazing to be let into the Acts Room at the Houses of Parliament: every roll is an Act of Parliament passed between 1497 and 1850! I could have stayed in there for a very long time.

Joe and I researched different aspects of each story and then came back to share our perspectives, which occasionally led to some heated debates. I hope the series will be as fun and informative to watch as it was to make!


Elizabethan makeup

If your partner thinks you take a long time getting made up in the morning, you might like to point to the example of Elizabeth I!

I spent Friday learning all about this lengthy process, with Sally Pointer (, author of The Artifice of Beauty, who has years of experience in reproducing historic cosmetics, for a new series on historical biographies for the History Channel (Canada), being made by Proper TV.

First, we explored how the young Elizabeth I created her image. Wanting to look pure and virginal, she favoured a natural, alabaster look. To make her skin pale, she used the best quality ingredients around, namely, white lead and vinegar. Sally brought real white lead with her – I’m sniffing it here, it smelt awful! – but in the interests of health and safety, we used reproduction lead on our model’s face (an actress and interpreter from Past Pleasures).

Elizabeth I also often used egg white to glaze her face, which helped hide wrinkles and gave her a smooth complexion. It also acted like a Renaissance botox, because it became impossible for her to move her face! It was also quite the thing to paint on blue veins, so as to make the skin look that much more transparent.

Recent research at the National Portrait Gallery has suggested that portraits like the Darnley painting of 1572 don’t show us an accurate picture of Elizabeth I, because the pigments of her rosy cheeks have faded, making her appear more ghostly than she would have been.

Instead, Sally explained that Elizabeth used crushed cochineal bettles for rouge, which was spread over the whole cheek and not just brushed along the cheekbones. The same cochineal was used for the lips. We still use a derivative from cochineal (carminic acid) in our cosmetics.

The Elizabeth look also demanded using lampblack to create dramatic dark eyebrows. The Elizabethans didn’t use mascara (or apparently, kohl), which surprised me, and explains their wide-eyed look.

Of course, Elizabeth’s use of lead did not do her face any favours. It ate into her skin, making it spongy, grey and wrinkled (lead poisoning is also associated with fatigue, headaches, abdominal pain, depression, loss of coordination, slurred speech and other delightful symptoms). The only answer: layer on the base more thickly. In later life, therefore, Elizabeth’s appearance was greatly more artificial. Thomas Tuke could have been describing her in his 1616 A Treatise against Painting and Tincturing of Men and Women when he wrote that:

‘white lead, wherewith women use to paint themselves was, without doubt, brought in use by the divell, the capitall enemie of nature, therwith to transforme humane creatures, of fear, making them ugly, enormious and abominable… a man might easily cut off a curd or cheese-cake from either of their cheeks’.

This is the look being sported by our older Elizabeth model (who is quite beautiful without all this slap, which just goes to show!)

Elizabeth also stepped up her artificiality in the colours used on her cheeks and lips. No more innocent cochineal, now Elizabeth used the garish vermilion, also known as cinnabar, which gave an intense red colour. It also poisoned her because vermilion is mercuric sulphide. Every time Elizabeth licked her lips she ingested this toxic substance. It was the mercury in felt that led to the expression ‘Mad Hatters’. Elizabeth too may have suffered from the litany of symptoms of mercury poisoning: lack of coordination, sensory impairment, personality changes, memory loss, irritability and brain damage. Any of them sound familiar when we come to the older Elizabeth?



Modern progresses

In recent weeks, I’ve had my head down, writing my new book, but I have occasionally done the odd bit of filming – remarking, in my new role as royal-historian-turned-commentator, on William and Kate’s (sorry – the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s) visit to Canada for CTV, and here, back on much more familiar ground, talking about Elizabethan progresses with Griff Rhys Jones for a new BBC series. Griff is following Elizabeth I’s progress of 1574 in the modern-day luxury equivalent of Elizabethan splendour: a Rolls Royce Phantom Five. I could happily sit in the back of this car, talking history, and call it work every day! But alas, the library beckons… (you know I don’t really mean that!)

Royal wedding coverage memories

Adrian Goldberg, our lighting man on the CTV set covering the royal wedding, has sent through half a dozen brilliant pictures of that day, and I thought I’d post a couple of them here as entertainment for you, and happy memories for me:

With royal biographer Christopher Warwick, comedienne Tracey Ullmann and anchor Lisa LaFlamme

With Tracey Ullmann

On board Drake’s Golden Hinde

Suzannah Lipscomb, Chris Hollins, The Weather Show Live

On board Sir Francis Drake’s Golde Hinde… well… on its reconstruction in London on 8 June 2011 to talk with Chris Hollins about the Spanish Armada for The Weather Show Live (except confusingly, this bit obviously wasn’t!)

>> Update: Now named The Great British Weather Show; my cameo is screening on Wednesday 3 August 2011 at 7.30pm.



CTV and the Royal Wedding

It’s been great fun doing some interviews for CTV in the run-up to the big day. You can watch them here:

CTV News,  Suzannah Lipscomb

Canada AM, Christopher Warwick and Suzannah Lipscomb