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Mark Steel talks about his new TV series on great historical figures

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Comedian and author Mark Steel has made a new TV series about great historical figures. He spoke to Socialist Worker
Issue 1871

The recent TV drama about the poet Lord Byron concentrated on his sex life. Was there more to him than that?

The people who make history programmes are obsessed with minute details and trying to find new angles on people. They find that Leonardo da Vinci was dyslexic and think, wow, that’s a hot new way of presenting him. With Byron, they are always trying to reveal some new secret. What would be new and genuinely original is to put him in context, to show that without the French Revolution Byron wouldn’t have written what he did.

The French Revolution showed him that individuals could aspire to something more than their allotted place in life – that inspired him. One academic I met making the programme, a man who lectured on Byron for years, said to me, ‘I can’t believe you have Byron down as a radical. I think he would be a Tory MP if he was around now.’

But the Tories hated Byron so much they refused to follow tradition and ring a bell when he died. It was the only time in history they refused to ring it for the death of a lord.

Byron’s only speech to the House of Lords was a defence of the Luddite rebels. He raised his own army to fight against a tyrannical empire in Greece. These are all little clues you think a lecturer might have picked up on.

How is your approach different from other history on TV, like the 100 Great Britons series?

Most TV historians are so bloody pompous. They remind you of the worst teachers you ever had. I want to puncture that pomposity. Linked to that is the way academics take figures out of their social context. They focus on details and miss the big picture. So they worry about how Byron’s poems scan but don’t understand anything about his outrage against oppression.

This is true even though Byron quite obviously represented a huge political movement. More obscure figures, like Aristotle, get shrouded in greater mystery. But if you take a Marxist perspective, you can ask why there were so many great philosophers like Aristotle in that particular place at that particular time. The answer is that there was this extraordinary birth of a great civilisation that had an empire. People wanted to understand everything so they could control everything.

This isn’t to say the people I look at weren’t brilliant individuals-they were. It’s just that you appreciate them even more if you look at their achievements in the context of their times.

Why should socialists be interested in scientists and philosophers who seem to have no direct connection with radical politics?

To change the world, you have to try to understand the world. When you begin to ask big questions, these characters cease to be the hollow figures people still get told about at school.

I know a seven year old who was told to memorise the wives of Henry VIII. All the people in the series have made fascinating leaps of imagination. They changed how people saw the world around them. And they were all obsessives and barmy in a fantastic sort of way.

Isaac Newton got so obsessive he went a bit potty. They put him in the Bank of England to check up on counterfeiters. He was just as obsessive about that, disguising himself and following people into pubs to catch them out.

We are told the world cannot be fundamentally different from what it is – a world where everything is determined by the drive for profits. A couple of hundred years ago the idea that God created the world in six days was just as dominant.

Three hundred years ago people believed the planets moved because God wanted them to. These views were just as hard to crack as the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism. But Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton made people see things differently.

They stuck to their guns, no matter how much the world lined up against them. Everyone loves them now, but in their day they faced serious hostility because they challenged the accepted way of seeing things. They are interesting not just because they are great figures, but also because they show that human beings do have the ability to change their world.

Mark Steel’s series is on BBC4. It begins with Byron on 7 October, followed by Isaac Newton, Sigmund Freud, Aristotle, Charles Darwin, and, last but not least, Karl Marx.

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