There are some genres of television that I watch with trepidation, for instance adaptations of novels I loved, or those highly praised US imports like Damages or Homeland, neither of which I have watched yet for fear of it all going over my tiny little head and sounding like a numpty when discussing it with fans of the shows.

The genre I most fear to watch is TV history. Which is odd, as history is a great love of mine. A well-written article about any era or topic grabs my attention, and if forced to make a list of 10 favourite books at least 3 would be history, most notably Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians. So why do I dodge televised history programmes like the plague?

The reason is consistency. I have missed many a no-doubt-amazing series fronted by Mary Beard or Lucy Worsley after a few traumatic experiences at the hands of other programmes. Because for every series that is impeccably researched and beautifully presented, there seems to be about a dozen dodgy relatives clogging up the schedules. The biggest cardinal sin is the need for mainstream history to be presented by people who aren’t historians, but rather by minor celebs who have a passing interest in a subject and then front a documentary, or a segment on a magazine-type show, about it. Sophie Dahl’s exploration of the life of Mrs. Beeton last year was one example of this. We were distracted from a fascinating biography of one of the most important women in history by Dahl’s insistence on throwing a Victorian dinner party for all her friends. Yet that is a piece of academic virtue compared to shows like Britain’s Hidden Heritage or National Treasures: Live, which seemed to have as its sole aim to make everyone at home go “Oooh, isn’t Britain lovely?” whilst Larry Lamb or Paul Lay dragged us round something-or-other.

So should TV history be left to academics? Well, actually, no. Sometimes, if exactly the right person is picked, you can give a non-academic a challenging brief. Ian Hislop bridges the gap between the two worlds perfectly. This is because, and I think this key to anything to do with history, he has a genuine passion for it. Stiff Upper Lip, exploring how Britain became stoic and unmovable, and if we are beginning to reverse that trend post-Diana, is a wonderful account, with an engaging main narrative and little side-stories. It’s hard to pick one fact of choice, such is the feast we are offered. Maybe that Mary Wollstonecraft’s wish for women to be seen as rational as men was undone by a series of, shall we say, misadventures with men and suicide attempts. That Wellington’s icy nature held Victorian imagination’s more than Nelson’s passion, to the extent where the latter’s dying words had to be changed to prevent him sounding too fey. Or maybe that the fashion for ‘sensibility’ was kicked into touch after a few revolutionaries went a bit mad in France.

There are some quibbles I have. Hislop opened with one of my pet hates, which is vox-poxing the public on the topic. We also had a scene where for some reason he was surrounded by silent schoolchildren, that looked like a boarding school equivalent of Children of the Corn. But these are minor issues in what is otherwise a brilliant programme. I await parts 2 and 3 with expectation, but, rather appropriately considering the topic, a quiet, resolute one.

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