Greg Jenner: Public Historian & Podcast Host

This month Alumni Voices catches up with ‘You’re Dead to Me’ podcast host, Greg Jenner (Vanbrugh, 2004). Since his career on ‘Horrible Histories’ Greg has been pursuing his dream of making history more accessible to all. We speak to Greg about his infectious love of history and what it means to be a public historian.

“York is a beautiful city. It’s quite a privilege to spend your days encountering that history, even if you are somewhat drunkenly stumbling around incredibly long cobbled streets! Friendships, fun nights out and dancing to rock songs in the nightclubs form my main memories. I really miss it as a place. That’s why I’ve loved coming back for the past nine years to give talks to the History students – it feels like coming full circle. 

“The more you live in the world, the more you have questions about it.”

History was something I enjoyed as a kid. Growing up half French forged my belief that there are two sides to every story; Napoleon was either a monster or a hero, depending on which parent was talking to me. As a boy I was drawn to these grand stories of wars and heroes/ villains but the further along I’ve got in my career, the more I’m fascinated by the human element of the everyday, the ordinary lives; what were most people doing? How were they living? What were they eating? How did they look after themselves? What medicines did they take? What were they wearing? That’s the stuff I really enjoy; it’s the social and cultural history. Absolutely everything is fascinating to me because the more you live in the world, the more you have questions about it. I’m very lucky to have a job where I’m always learning new stuff. It’s a dream gig, to stay inspired.” 

Born in 1982, Greg grew up in Kent and attended the University of York, where he earned a degree in Archaeology and History (2004) and a Masters in Medieval Studies (2006). After graduating, Greg began working in the TV Industry as a historical researcher and Assistant Producer on historical documentaries and dramas.

In 2008, Greg began working on the BBC’s ‘Horrible Histories’, a sketch comedy series aimed at children that used humour and parody to explore various periods of history. Greg worked as a historical consultant and writer for the show, helping to ensure that the historical content was accurate but still engaging and entertaining.

“I’ve always loved television and pop culture, so in 2005 – a long time ago now – TV was the most influential place to go if you wanted to reach as many people as possible. I really wanted to go into TV because it felt like a good opportunity to carry on doing what I love, while sharing my passion with the biggest audience possible. 

I wrote lots of emails to documentary makers asking for work experience while I was doing my Masters. From the successful replies I chose a company called Lion TV and started working on historical documentaries. I then moved into making historical dramas for a year and a half, coming up with ideas, doing the research, and then assisting the producers, actors and crew with factual accuracy when it came to filming the scripts.

“They weren’t going to have historians on ‘Horrible Histories’ but I talked my way into being the historian… I guess it was that perfect confluence of good luck, good judgement and a bit of cheekiness.”

From then on it was just pure blind luck. I was in Lion TV’s office one day, and I heard my boss talking about acquiring the rights to the ‘Horrible Histories’ books. In a rare moment of courage –  it was terrifying for a shy, awkward man, as I was then –  I knocked on his door and said, ‘I have to work on the show. I’m a historian who loves comedy. I wrote my master’s thesis on ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’. I have considered the issues of historical accuracy when popular entertainment deals with the past. I love these questions and I’m fascinated by how comedy works. Let me work on the show: I’ll do the photocopying, I’ll make the tea, I’ll do whatever. Just please let me work on this thing!’ 

I expected to have more of a battle, as they weren’t going to have historians working on ‘Horrible Histories’, but I talked my way into being the historian. I guess in retrospect, it wasn’t blind luck; I’d spent many years preparing for this role. I had quite a weird skill set in terms of balancing history with a love of comedy, and I was well-suited to the task; but to be in the right place at the right time, as well as with the right skills, doesn’t happen often. I guess it was that perfect confluence of good luck, good judgement, and a bit of cheekiness. 

When we started making the show I realised that this was something that I was good at. I’d always planned to be an academic and do my PhD, but my interests in comedy had often been something of an awkward fit when it came to essay writing. Amazingly, ‘Horrible Histories was written in a comedic style that was much too silly for academia, but my brilliant series producer Caroline Norris let me bring an academic rigour to the research and fact-checking. I got to be a clown and a scholar, all at once; at last it felt like I’d found my place.

“A public historian’s job is to ensure that the public can get access to history, can enjoy it and feel it’s for them, it should be for everyone – that means demystifying it and removing the barriers.”

‘Horrible Histories’ was amazing because I got to be a core member of the team from day one on this edgy, experimental show that ended up being a huge cult hit. It’s really rewarding to capture kids’ imaginations when they’re young. I’m 40 now and I meet PhD students who grew up watching that show. 

Comedy is a wonderful thing to harness, it’s a joyful and amazing way to experience the world through laughter.  It’s also a very useful rhetorical technique that lends itself really well to explaining complicated things, so it’s a brilliant tool when writing for children and adults. You can be deeply serious about a subject while laughing at it. It’s not that you’re mocking it, or not taking it seriously – I take my job incredibly seriously – but laughter allows people to engage positively with ideas, and relax into the messiness. With jokes, I reach more people. A public historian’s job is to ensure that the public can get access to history, can enjoy it and feel it’s for them. History should be for everyone – that means demystifying it and removing the barriers to entry. Sometimes those barriers are technical, sometimes they have to do with language and vocabulary. Sometimes, history seems scary to people; it appears intimidating or boring. A lot of people I meet utterly hated it at school. I’m trying to win those people back, so you have to do all you can to try and make it feel welcoming. For me, that means doing history with a grin on my face. 

‘Monty Python’ was a huge influence on me. I grew up with my dad’s comedy tastes, classic comedies from the 60s and 70s: Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, ‘the Goons’, ‘Monty Python’ and  ‘Blackadder’. That’s how I learned how comedy works, and the subtle art of strategic silliness. A few years ago I made a radio programme for the BBC about why comedy writers are so drawn to history; it’s a really interesting relationship. I realised in hindsight that half of ‘Monty Python’ were History graduates – you can tell from the writing and from the jokes they’re doing, the stories they’re covering and how they approach them. There’s this analytical, interrogative style that comes from being an historian.

I love being a podcaster for the BBC, and what’s unique about the style of ‘You’re Dead to Me’ is that we combine factual expertise with comedy. There are lots of history podcasts hosted by historians, and they’re really good shows, but we pair up academics (they’ve got to have a PhD and be an expert in the field) with a fantastic comedian, who often doesn’t know anything about the subject. They’re not allowed to look at the Wikipedia page before they come in, they only get told the title of the episode, and they don’t get a script – they just get thrown in at the deep end! So, the podcast has a natural, slightly chaotic energy from the comedian reacting off the cuff. And as they learn things, so does the listener. But there’s an enormous amount of work that goes into producing an episode and ensuring the historian covers all the detail in high quality. I’m the host, but I’m one of a 10 person team, and I’m actually the least qualified member; I don’t have a PhD, everyone else pretty much does. We are all working incredibly hard to make these complicated, difficult, challenging subjects – with loads of cutting edge scholarship – feel really clear, warm, funny and welcoming to both the comedian and the listener. As host, I’m trying to facilitate conversations between two people who would ordinarily never meet each other. The idea is if they did meet in an airport lounge, waiting for a flight, what would they talk about? And how would that go? It’s almost like structured speed dating!

“History is fascinating when you’re studying human nature – it’s an empathetic, curious drive; that’s certainly why I’m drawn to it.”

‘You’re Dead To Me’ can be raucous and cheeky, but we don’t do mean jokes, we don’t do fat jokes, we don’t rejoice in the horrible stuff; we try to make it funny and accessible, while being sensitive to the painful and problematic parts of the past. We also work really hard to make sure that there are lots of different people appearing on the show, as well as a broad array of subjects to discuss. We do Black history, Asian history, LGBTQ history, and lesser known subjects. We’re trying to change how audiences understand what history is. For so many people History was boring, it was serious, it was about a cast of mostly European men with swords and flags. And when I was young, many historians looked a certain way too. They were primarily middle aged men in tweed jackets, and that’s fine in moderation, but we try to convey that historians can be anyone; they can come from any background. They don’t just have to look a certain way and sound a certain way. I think we’re very lucky to have this platform so we try to use it carefully. It’s so important to give the podcast varied voices, both in terms of the comedians and historians that we platform, and broadening the range of guests undoubtedly makes for a better show, because you get a greater variety of jokes and different ways of seeing the world. And comedy thrives on surprise! 

I think there are perhaps two main reasons to study History. The first guiding principle is political. It’s important to understand our past so we can make a better future, or at least figure out conversations about what society we want to be. The alternative reason is simply natural curiosity.  History is fascinating when you’re studying human nature – it’s an empathetic, curious drive to understand others unlike ourselves; that’s certainly why I’m drawn to it.

“Debunking can sometimes be seen as an act of aggression; I see it as an act of progression. Change is an integral part of History. It is an intellectual discourse, it’s always flowing and churning like a river.”  

The thing I love most about being a public historian is the constant learning. I love being proved wrong all the time and having to reassess how I understand the world. I suddenly go, ‘Oh, I thought I understood that, but I don’t.’ Maybe for some people that would be very upsetting, but for me it’s delightful. Public historians do quite a lot of debunking historical myths, and some people get very upset when their beliefs are challenged; maybe that understanding has propped up a certain political position of theirs and suddenly it’s been knocked away? Some people put quite a lot of store in things they learned at school, and they don’t want it overturned; but I love being wrong! I really enjoy resetting my perception, and updating my knowledge. Debunking can sometimes be seen as an act of aggression; I see it as an act of progression. Change is an integral part of History. It is an intellectual discourse, it’s always flowing and churning like a river.

Often politicians decry that historians “are rewriting history!” But that’s literally our job! History isn’t the same as The Past; the past is what actually happened, it cannot be changed (you’d need a time machine). But History gets rewritten every day, and it has always been this way. History is the story we tell based on the evidence remaining. It is the interpretation process. If the Past is the crime, History is the police investigation! 

I find it exciting when new knowledge comes along and challenges old ideas. Every society asks new questions of the past based on who we’re becoming. Society is changing so fast and we’re perhaps now focusing on different questions: climate change, the rights of disabled people, human migration, race, gender and sexuality. Inevitably we’re going to look for answers in our past, and often the answers were there all along but previous generations of historians hadn’t prioritised seeking them out. They might have been more interested in empires, or heroes, or military technology. Every society will ask new questions of the past based on the questions it’s asking of itself. It’s not that historians are inventing new stuff, or knocking things down for the sake of it! It’s that we’ve looked again at the same evidence, but we’ve got a fresh outlook. I think that’s something to embrace.

Every single facet of the lived human experience is there in the past. I think my job is to go and look for that shared humanity. People in the past were often different to us; they asked different questions, they thought differently. We might think them weird or irrational! But they also had the same problems we did; they still had to do the biological stuff that we do every day – food, drink, sanitation, hygiene – and they still had to stay safe, they had to build cities, they had to look after their kids and pets, they told jokes and got drunk or got angry. People are people.

“Every society will ask new questions of the past based on the questions it’s asking of itself.”

This generation of children who grew up with ‘Horrible Histories’ are now history teachers, history students, PhD students or even professional historians; personally that is the greatest thing I could possibly imagine! As a young 25 year old historian, when I got the ‘Horrible Histories’ job, I never imagined it would have the impact it did. It’s probably the best thing I’ll ever do in my life, to have had a million kids watch our show once a week, to have been involved in that programme for 11 years, and then to actually see the knock on effects has been thrilling; even within a couple of years we heard that the museum attendance rate started to go up, and within 5 years more students started to study History at university. That’s a mark of how popular culture can be so impactful, and that’s why I care so much about my job. It’s a real privilege to be able to work in that space. It has been wonderful to see a generation of young people who weren’t switched off by the subject any more

For me, the most important way to teach History to young people is to begin with inspiration. Later in life they can start to master critical thinking and the skills that become important, like source analysis and learning dates but History can often feel very remote and irrelevant to a young person. So, I always try to start with the world that children already know, the subjects they love, the homes and houses that they grow up in, the streets they walk, the cities they live in – this familiarity makes it feel like it’s their story. Also I like to focus on the big topics, like the history of medicine or food, but bring them back to the things that children are frequently encountering. This was the basis of my first children’s book, ‘You Are History’, which looks at 50 ordinary objects a kid uses every day. 

I think increasingly children are coming to History without dread or boredom but ours is a diverse society and young people may come from a range of cultural backgrounds, family experiences, and they may have other heritages as well as being British citizens. If we want every child to feel connected to the past, we all need to be doing more global history to understand where we all come from and join the dots. We also live in a world that is shaped by global trade and international politics, so adults might also want to better understand global history to make sense of why things are the way they are when they turn on the evening news bulletin.

Unfortunately, the problem with History is there’s too much of it!  All you can do with a child is inspire them to begin that journey. If you can get them to fall in love with the stories, and foster that early curiosity, then maybe they’ll stay with History for the rest of their lives.”

You can listen to Greg’s ‘You’re Dead to Me’ podcast via BBC Sounds.

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