Sam’s mission to illuminate obscure history

Laura White
Laura White

Sam Willis, the local TV historian who will be coming to Chagword next month, has created a live show to bring history up to date

Sam Willis stands in the back garden of his house. It is a perfect 19th Century cottage elegantly sandwiched between two unusual modern extensions. They were designed to look ‘like bookends’ he explains.

The juxtaposition of traditional white stucco and traditional sash windows against the ultra-modern glass and wood is a rather good metaphor for what Sam is all about. He is a man on a mission. He wants to drag history out of the dark corner of fusty facts and dusty books and make everyone see it in a fresh light.

His latest venture is ‘Histories of the Unexpected LIVE’ based around his recent book of the same name. He has driven about 3,500 miles taking the show to a dozen venues around the country and is energized by the response:

“All ages come,” he says. “They laugh, they chat, they engage with us on social media, it’s joyous. I’m on a mission to free history from the grip of professors and to inspire people.”

The driving force behind the Histories of the Unexpected project was his ongoing series of podcasts with friend and partner Professor James Daybell. The podcasts have provided much of the material for the book and have proven phenomenally popular. What gave them the idea?

“We challenged ourselves to write histories of things that didn’t have histories,” says Sam. “That’s how our podcast came about. The one I am most proud of is the history of ‘the lean’. If you think of Paris: it has tall upright beautiful buildings. Well, it didn’t used to look like that, it used to look like those medieval streets in York, all higgledy-piggledy. And then at a certain point they completely cleared it all out because they wanted straight lines which was a sign of modernity.

‘Then think of 1920s women walking around with books on their heads. It’s to do with posture: you can’t slouch, you can’t lean. But if you think of James Dean he was always slouching and leaning. This whole posture of slouchiness occurred in the 1950s and 60s as a direct reaction to the militarisation of America.”

The informal episodes, which now total nearly one hundred, consist of rambling chats with friend and partner Professor James Daybell. They wend their way from one subject to another bantering about anything from Samuel Pepys’ flatulence to why cats are connected to the French Revolution. There’s a good chemistry between the two so it is like eavesdropping a really interesting conversation down the pub.

“We’ve had over a million downloads for our podcasts which I’m really pleased about,” says Sam.

James Daybell is also his partner on the live show and despite being an academic with a string of history books to his own name, he is very happy to step up to the challenge of performing. Sam reveals what the audience can expect:

“We’ve invented something which doesn’t really exist anywhere else. If you see a historian talk live, they talk standing behind a lectern, maybe to some slides. At the other end of the scale you have Horrible Histories where people are dressed up and talk about wee and poo. This sits somewhere in the middle. We have had the book turned into a live show by a guy called Daniel Jamieson who is a Devon-based award-winning playwright. He’s amazing. He took nine or ten chapters and built a show around them. It’s got all sorts of props and visuals and fun things.”

The production, which sold out for the recent performance in
Plymouth, will come to Chagford in March and will demonstrate how the most unlikely historical events, happenings and inventions link together in unexpected ways. From perfume to Proust and from the paperclip to Pompeii, it sets out to give the history lesson a
‘nutri-bullet’ style shake-up. Sam is sure it will change the way people think about the past.

“The message is that history doesn’t have to be owned and controlled by academics who pretend they know everything because they absolutely don’t,” he insists. “What historians need to do more is to say ‘I haven’t got a clue’ – have the balls to say ‘I don’t know’.”

Ironically, Sam himself is an academic thoroughbred although this clearly also gives him the authority to make such a damning assertion. He has a degree in history from Exeter University, an MA in maritime archaeology, a PhD in Naval History, and is also a visiting fellow at Plymouth University. His first book was entitled ‘Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century: The Art of Sailing Warfare’ and was the first ever study of the history of naval tactics in that era. He went on to write eleven more on the subject of maritime warfare from the Spanish Armada to Horatio Nelson.

“I come from a naval family and I have always been interested in all things to do with the sea,” he explains. “I have my own boat and I’m happiest by the sea and on the sea. I spent a lot of time on boats when I was younger; I learnt to sail square rigged ships.”

But if the Willis family expected him to follow family tradition and join the Navy they had another thing coming. He admits he considered the idea briefly but rejected it because he is ‘not very good with institutions’. So although he is able to shin up a tall mast and brace himself against the yard arm, he instead he set sail on a media career, making television series for the BBC and National Geographic.

For ‘The Silk Road,’ he travelled from Venice to Beijing retracing the ancient ‘superhighway’ that carried goods between Asia and Europe. Most recently, at the end of last year, BBC4 screened
‘Invasion!’ which looked at how Britain has been shaped by
‘invading hordes’ over thousands of years.

One of his strangest projects was hooking up with the American urban explorer Robert Joe to find the truth behind the myth in ‘Nazi World War Weird’ for the National Geographic channel.

He concedes that it is not the programme of which he is most proud and that most myths such as secret German trains stuffed full of gold are just that – myths.  However, he was struck by one of the stories which turned out to be real: a Japanese plague bomb which was developed during the war and dropped on Chinese cities.

“It was unbelievable, I’ve been to Auschwitz but that place was mind-blowing,” he says of the chilling research facility which still exists in Northern China and is which has now been turned into a museum.

For the BBC’s ‘Nelson’s Hell Hole’ he went to Antigua to excavate a mass grave of British sailors. He has also hurtled down the Colorado River with fellow historian Dan Snow, and explored shipwrecks off the coast of Britain. Sam has an infectious enthusiasm for history but why does he think it is so important?

“One of the most important events in my life was when my parents met and that happened before I was born. If you take that principle and apply it to the world it makes sense. You can’t really understand what’s happening today unless you understand what happened in the past. It’s as simple as that. Everything that’s ever happened to anyone and the sheer variety of extraordinary events and people and personalities that you come across when you write history is fundamental to how people act and should act today. It’s a self-improvement thing as much as anything else.”

Sam is a self-confessed radical with a disdain for tradition and there is no doubt that he wants to be in the vanguard of change.

“Historians at the moment are doing some really obscure abstract articles and PhDs and what we are doing is bringing some of those ideas to a broader public. Historians are working more across
disciplines – for example with history of art or with science. The way we write history now has completely changed from just 10 years ago. It’s more innovative and exciting.”

Rather than retreading old familiar ground in increasingly painstaking detail, Sam wants to champion understanding the past by approaching it from unusual angles. Inspiration can strike at the most unlikely moment, like when he first thought of shifting his focus from being just a naval historian, to being a historian about everything.

“The idea came to me when I was leading a tour of HMS Victory,” he reveals. “We were in Nelson’s cabin and there was this huge window – the entire back of the ship is glass – and someone asked me why it was there. It was like having a conservatory on the back of a tank – it’s completely ridiculous. It was a gap in history and I realised you could only explain it if you understood the history of looking and the history of ‘the view’.

‘It’s a very 18th Century thing; it’s to do with admiring your landscape and the sheer expense of having glass to look through. So, for Nelson it was more important to be seen to have a window in his ship than to protect his men. I realised, from that one question, that you could write ‘a history of the view’ – nobody has ever done that.”

There are so many ideas popping out of him that it could keep an entire television commissioning department or publishing house busy for eternity.

“I’ve found examples of Tudor children blowing bubbles,” he declares at one point. “It was one of the oldest kids toys. That means there must have been recipes for bubble mixtures.  I don’t know the answer but I know enough to know there’s a history there. There’s an infinity of stuff to find out about. For example in my next podcast I will talk about the women who worked in rope factories spending their working lives walking backwards as they plaited the rope.”

One of his delights is that there is a burgeoning dialogue with the podcast audience whose imagination has been fired up. They often write in with suggestions for a line of historical enquiry.

“Pockets was one of them,” he exclaims, “It’s fantastic. It’s all to do with what you’ve got in them and who has them. Men could put watches and money in them. Women didn’t used to have pockets, pockets weren’t allowed in the Victorian period because the man would hold all your stuff.”

So when did women get pockets?  Sam has no shame in admitting ignorance on that one.  After all, as he has already pointed out, it is not about historians holding all the answers.  History may be over but there’s plenty yet to find out. As Sam observes:

“It should be about opening little doors that make people think. It might for example end up with someone writing a PhD or a book and then all of human knowledge is expanded.  That is really exciting.”

‘Histories of the Unexpected LIVE’ will be performed in Chagford on 23rd March as part of the Chagword Festival. ‘Histories of the Unexpected’ is published by Atlantic Books at £18.99. You can subscribe to the regular ‘Histories of the Unexpected’ podcasts for free via iTunes or by logging on to the website