A few years ago, I briefly threatened to become a TV historian – say, a cross between a more male and more Welsh version of Lucy Worsley, and a taller and less annoying version of David Starkey. A Dutch TV company was talking to me about a project related to what were then the forthcoming anniversaries of the second Anglo-Dutch war, and the BBC had signed me up to do some filming with, of all people, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, he of the silken cuffs. (I’d also been screentested by a production company a little while before that, but the project never get off the ground.) Roughly within the same timeframe, I was also talking to a major theatre company, who were staging a new production of a play which might or might not have a strong wind in its title, and which might or might not be by an author whose name rhymes with Makesbeer; the company in question were keen to reflect, as far as possible, what conditions were really like aboard a seventeenth century ship in a storm. There were mentions of potentially talking to the cast (headed by a pretty well known actor) and of tickets for a performance.
So what came of these dalliances with fame and fortune?
Absolute sweet FA.
(For followers of this blog who aren’t familiar with that expression, I suggest you explore its origin here – it’s quite a story!)
To be fair to the BBC, I did film with the sartorially splendid LL-B for the best part of a day – much more historically knowledgeable than your preconceptions might suggest, BTW – but my contribution ended up on the cutting room floor. Not all of the information I’d provided did, though: one or two references in the final programme were clearly derived from things I’d said, even though my name didn’t appear in the credits. As for Dutch TV and the theatre, I’d spoken to both at some length, and given them information which may or may not have appeared in their final productions. I don’t know if the programme ever saw the light of day, but the play certainly did, unlike the implied promise of tickets and the like (and by the time I realised they weren’t going to appear and tried to book some myself, the run was sold out). This experience certainly isn’t unique to me, though. Several friends and colleagues have had exactly the same thing happen to them, the most heinous case being that of a friend who effectively provided large amounts of original research for a Channel 4 programme, only for it to be presented by someone else, with no credit whatsoever given to the person who’d actually done the work.
I mention all this because an article in The Guardian over the weekend raised this exact same point. Indeed, it implied that, if anything, the problem of TV and film companies simply lifting historians’ work without crediting them at all may well have got worse in the last couple of years – and the success of films like Darkest Hour, Dunkirk and The Favourite surely guarantees that yet more historical epics will follow, based more or less closely on original work done by people who, for certain, will have made far less money than the producers, directors, actors, and probably the make-up artists, stagehands and runners too. Inevitably, the article triggered frenzied activity in my Twitter feed, with plenty of people I know, like and respect sticking their hands up to say ‘me too’ (to coin a phrase), while wholeheartedly endorsing the article’s demand for proper recognition, and, indeed, payment, for historians whose work forms the basis for productions on TV, film and the stage.
Looking back, of course, I was naive to volunteer as much information as I did to the people I was dealing with without ensuring I’d banked at least some of the quid pro quo in advance. But removing my historian’s hat (an unfashionable, moth-eaten fedora, as long-term readers of this blog will recall), and donning my novelist’s hat (a metaphor, because novelists can’t afford hats), I think it’s clear that this problem is rather more widespread. Yes, on the one hand, making use of an individual’s work without paying for it or, at the very least, without providing some form of credit for it, is plagiarism – or, if you prefer, pure, simple, unadorned theft. But there’s also a larger subtext at play here. I’m a member of the Society of Authors, and attend meetings of its local branch, in company with a great, supportive, good-humoured crowd of fellow scribblers. Within the last couple of years, the society has been particularly animated by the question of payments for author talks, particularly at literary festivals, which now seem to be absolutely everywhere in the UK. (Is there a town left that doesn’t have one?) I’ve had the sob story myself, more than once – ‘oh, we’re a very small festival / we’re just starting up, etc, so we can’t afford to pay you a fee, but would you still be willing to come and talk to three nonagenarians and an arthritic dog in North Auchtermuchty on a cold, wet Thursday night in January?’ Actually, the small festivals aren’t really the problem – over the years, I’ve taken part in a few, and also given one-off talks to audiences not much larger than the apocryphal one I’ve just cited, all on a pro bono basis, usually if it’s a cause that I think deserves support and encouragement,* or if there’s a chance of reaching some new readers and selling some books, or if I just fancy a trip to a nice part of the country. But some pretty large, and undoubtedly well funded, festivals and organisations have tried to pull the same trick, leading the Society of Authors to make it an official policy that its members shouldn’t attend such events, or give talks per se, if they don’t get paid. This impressive demonstration of author power led the mighty Oxford Literary Festival, for one, to change its policy and actually start paying its speakers, but there are still plenty of people out there who seem to think that authors (and, by extension, the historians whose research underpins so much of film and TV) are pitiful, insecure creatures, desperate for anyone at all to notice them, who can therefore be treated essentially as unpaid labour (some may prefer to use a much more historically loaded term instead), and who should be pathetically grateful for any crumbs that are thrown their way – or, more often, not.
Ultimately, of course, it all comes down to fairness, and due recompense being made for work done. That, though, is where I start to get a bit conflicted: after all, this is essentially the same argument used by very large and very rich media organisations to try to get people to sign up for their paywalls, i.e. that readers should be prepared to pay to consume good journalism. Well, yes of course, in principle, but is there any guarantee that if I sign up for The Times paywall, to name but one, my money will go to support some poor overworked hack rather than swelling Rupert Murdoch’s profits? Paying a modest amount directly to a historian whose book has contributed to the success, and, indeed, the very existence of a film or TV programme, or directly to an author who comes along to speak to an audience at a fraction of the cost of a C-list stand-up comedian, seems to me to be a very different case.
But then, I suspect I might be a little biased.
(* Hence, for example, my talk last Thursday to the wonderful National Trust volunteers at Shugborough Hall, the stately home of Admiral Lord Anson in the eighteenth century and the queen’s photographer cousin, Lord Lichfield, in the twentieth. Yes, the NT could certainly afford to pay a fee – this, after all, is a body that can buy entire islands or mountains – but it was for a good cause, a brilliant joint initiative with my old alma mater Oxford University (another institution not really short of a bob or two) to enhance the connections between some of the NT’s properties and maritime history. As almost all of those in my audience were volunteers who happily give up their time gratis so that the public can enjoy the house and estate, it would have been distinctly Scrooge-like of me to request a fee!)