‘Written and presented by …’

written and presented byOne question I’m often asked after giving a talk is ‘how do you research/write your history television programmes?’

Well, the answer is that I don’t: they’re a massive team effort, and I’m only the mouthpiece for a group of people. It’s one of the reasons that they’re fun to make, as it’s totally collaborative.  That’s even when the original idea sprang from my very own head, because researching the locations, finding the experts, getting replicas of the documents or sourcing props are all specialist skills that I couldn’t do it even if I didn’t have a day job that keeps me at the office.  That’s why each project has researchers, and sometimes a specialist series historical consultant (step forward Andrew Thompson, for ‘The First Georgians’, or Judith Flanders for ‘A Very British Murder’) as well as all the expert contributors you’ll see on screen.

You’ll often see the words ‘written and presented by X’ at the end of a history programme, but not at the end of any of mine. (If any have slipped through the net, it was because someone was trying to be nice to me and I failed to notice!)  That’s because I believe it’s highly debatable that programmes ever get ‘written’ – or certainly, that’s true of the way I like to work.

In fact, my director Sebastian Barfield at a recent event we did together explained to the audience in a very lucid way that if history documentaries get written at all, it happens three times.  The first time is a script – an outline of all the scenes in the right order, so when we start filming them (which is inevitably in the wrong order!) we know where we’re coming from and going to.  I like these scripts to be written in bullet points so that when I need to say something I can put it together in my head on the spot.  I think that sounds more natural than learned lines, and I like to riff around the subject a bit.

Secondly, when the filming’s all done, the ‘script’ has to be re-written.  That’s a first draft of all the commentary that links together the actual talking that’s been filmed.  So, introducing interviewees and locations or turning corners.

Then, finally, I’m usually allowed to  get my hands all over it, and put it into my own words.  Directors secretly hate this because they always think that what they’ve written is better.  But they reluctantly concede that I ought to be allowed to have my own particular way of putting things.   This part is genuinely written down and tweaked and debated very hotly, because once we’re recording it in a studio everything has to fit, timing-wise, to a second.  We go on arguing right up to the wire, sometimes even recording alternative versions so that the debate can continue ever after the recording is over!

So, bearing in mind all that, while the words you’ll hear come out of my mouth, it’s not a case that I’ve sat down beforehand and ‘written’ them.

Now I’ll tell you a secret that I’ve only been made privy to gradually, over time, as I’ve got to know various television people and they’ve started to trust me enough to blab the inside story.

Sometimes ‘written and presented by X’ contains NOT ONE WORD written by ‘X’.

Sometimes ‘X’ can’t even write.

But ‘written and presented by’ sounds more authoritative.

Television, the world of smoke and mirrors, eh?

15 thoughts on “‘Written and presented by …’

  1. Jerry W

    Carry on being honest as well as entertaining and you’ll probably get drummed out of Equity, Lucy… 😉

  2. Andrew West

    Lucy, your presentation is indubitably stamped with your personality! And even if it weren’t The grins and raised eyebrows (not to mention the dressing up) speak volumes!
    Clearly, sometimes “X” doesn’t have the first idea what they are actually saying!
    I look forward to the next outing, and shall study the credits closely!

  3. Gill Chesney-Green

    Hi Lucy,

    Ah – indeed the collaborative endeavours that go on behind the scenes are what makes your programmes so well researched. It would certainly not be the same, however, if it wasn’t your own very particular style and nuances that make them such compulsive viewing. I guess that you could say that you’re ‘the icing on the cake’. [Did they have icing way back in the mists of time?]

  4. Robert

    Lucy you appear so natural on TV and give that air of enjoying your work while trying to teach us something special. Keep up the good work.

  5. Chris Hough

    Your presentation leaves nothing to be desired It should serve as a template for others to follow Equally your idiosyncratic prose also draws one in to the narrative and allows one to learn a great deal while not seeming to Keep up the good work!

  6. Judy Oberhausen

    Hi Lucy,

    Thanks for the ‘behind the scenes” look at what YOU as presenter make looks effortless…or almost so…I suspected the dressing up bits took a village of assistants.

  7. Jim O'Toole

    Lucy, If you were ‘just’ a presenter this article may be a disappointment, but you clearly have the credentials to present these histories and receive the credit for the success of these shows. Who else could make them such fun ! I love the way you get involved and I still smile when I think of you trying on that ‘scold’s bridle’.
    Well done to you and the team

  8. Nick van V.

    But you *did* write this blog post, right? At least everything on the internet is still real?

  9. Lidia Matassa

    Admirable honesty. Keep making the collaborative series; they’re hugely enjoyable and informative. Well done to all the team(s).

  10. Greg Dobrin

    You’ve got the indefinable “it” factor, Dr. Lucy. Whether what you do is carefully scripted, totally improvised or scribbled on cocktail napkins, you hit upon a balance of gravitas and wry good humor other presenters can’t quite seem to manage.

    Many thanks to you and yours for steering clear of dramatizations. I’m all for the employment of actors, but not in history documentaries (your own cheeky reenactments notwithstanding; Those bits are always a lot of fun. Again — the “it” factor).

  11. Sandy

    We don’t watch much by way of television in our house, but we always look out for your programmes. I am sure the collaboration makes them even better, though it is your humour, as well as your knowledge, that makes us watch (and these are what prompted my googling to see if you had a blog). Oh, and I love your dress sense!

  12. Bedd Gelert

    Stories I could tell about a certain ‘Lord’ who presents on a well known ‘intelligent’ radio station..

  13. John Harding

    Lucy, came late to this Blog. To repeat other comments, so typically honest of you to credit the work of others . However you present it so brilliantly and I know from your books what a meticulous, first-rate historian and researcher you are. I do hope you will keep wowing us with your programmes and books.

  14. John O'Brien

    Social history brought to life. A style which encourages the viewer to want to look into their own family history and appreciate that we are the fruits of our forebears. Evidently brilliantly researched we can see see ourselves in the lives of the people portrayed. Are the programmes shown in schools in Britain? Perhaps they should be.

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