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Dan Snow: The historian who’s not attached to the past

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

From here:

The Monday Interview: The educator, AV campaigner, and royal wedding guest talks to Adam Sherwin
If the weekend’s events displayed a nation caught between tradition and modernity then there’s one historian who can surely make sense of it all. It’s been a busy few days for Dan Snow, the boundlessly-energetic BBC “history heart-throb”, scion of a famous broadcasting family and now a vocal advocate for the Yes to AV campaign.

Snow, 32, has argued for constitutional change on Newsnight and worked the phones at the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign. “We shouldn’t be attached to the past like ancestor worshippers,” he says of the first-past-the-post system.

But he also measured up his morning suit as a distinguished guest at the royal wedding, which he attended with his wife, Lady Edwina Grosvenor, daughter of the sixth Duke of Westminster. Can a hereditary monarchy, entrenched by Friday’s nuptials, sit comfortably alongside the promise of a more plural, democratic Britain offered by AV?

Snow, who has won acclaim for his military history books and documentaries, believes the secret lies in the monarchy’s adaptability. “In the past an event like this would have been a military spectacle but now it’s a family wedding,” he says.

“Marrying a middle-class girl from outside of the aristocracy shows the monarchy does change with the times and is designed for a democratic age.”

But there does need to be a change to the line of succession. “If William and Catherine’s first child is a daughter, there’s absolutely no doubt that she would become Queen, over the sovereign claim of a younger brother. If the British Parliament changes the law and the Commonwealth splits over the issue then so be it.”

It’s the kind of constitutional debate that constantly swirled around the Snow household. His father Peter tended the Newsnight swingometer on election nights and his cousin, Jon, is the Channel 4 News anchor.

Dan’s mother Ann is a Canadian journalist and he is the nephew of Margaret MacMillan, the Oxford historian. For good measure he is the great-great-grandson of David Lloyd George.

“I’ve been the luckiest person in the world because right from the earliest age my parents would talk around the table about PR, presidential democracy and monarchical absolutism,” he recalls.

“My dad is the best sounding board. We always argue but Dad is a fantastic empiricist in his own right. Of course he tells us all about voting systems and polls and he remembers the 1974 discussions about a Lib-Lab deal over PR.” When Snow left Balliol College, Oxford, with a double first in Modern History, Peter helped launch his television career, as father and son toured eight of the most famous British battlefields for a BBC series.

Dan has never looked back, bringing his authoritative, enthused approach to subjects including a well-received history of the Royal Navy and most recently Filthy Cities, a visceral journey into the sewers below Paris, London and New York.

Snow, who suffered bites from rats and leeches, is willing to make some compromises for the prize of attracting younger viewers to history. “It was an ambitious attempt, using CGI, to bring a wider audience to history on BBC2. There was a great reaction on Twitter but it was also a serious attempt to show the struggle we’ve had against filth and the progress we’ve made.” He’s observed how his television historian contemporaries, Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson, Dan’s Oxford tutor, have agreed to advise Michael Gove over the Education Secretary’s pledge to ensure that no child leaves school without learning a “narrative history”.

“My dad’s generation can list historical dates, the 1832 Reform Act and so on but they don’t know the substance behind them,” he says. “It would be a success if children could walk away from school with some understanding of how and why Britain is the shape it is today, ethnically and socially. I would like young people to be more aware of some old-fashioned constitutional history. It’s beyond my comprehension that an understanding of how and why we vote in this country is not a mandatory part of the syllabus.”

It was a letter opposing AV, signed by eminent historians including Ferguson and David Starkey that thrust Snow into the political debate. “I was bemused by this list of extremely impressive historians who made some very basic errors in a letter backing first past the post,” he says.

“They quoted first past the post as if it’s part of the legitimacy of the age. But we’ve had hung parliaments in one third of the past 100 years or so and sometimes parties volunteered to form coalitions in a crisis.

“Our democracy is the oldest in the world but we’ve never sat on our laurels. It’s evolved, we’ve franchised women, we got rid of private voting, we decided to pay MPs money.”

Is Snow a classic Liberal reformer in the Lloyd George tradition? “I grew up inspired by David Lloyd George but also Gladstone, Churchill and Atlee. They achieved extraordinary things. Paddy Ashdown is also someone I always looked up to.”

Yet he isn’t tempted to follow his fellow historian, Tristram Hunt, into Parliament. “It’s been fun getting involved in politics but I couldn’t toe a party line. I’d find the discipline of following a party doctrine tiresome.”

Snow is a dedicated advocate of social media. “I was so tempted to Tweet from inside the wedding but I’d probably never be invited anywhere again,” he reveals.

He’s been “invigorated” by the discovery that he can make a short film explaining AV, upload it to YouTube and have it seen by 10,000 people within an hour.

Snow tends to be wherever the action is. He escaped unscathed when the Syrian uprising erupted just as he was filming at the Krak Des Chevaliers in Homs in the west of the country, for a Discovery series on castles. But he balks at any suggestion that he has enjoyed a gilded rise from school captain to Oxford Boat Race star through instant television stardom and marriage into the Duke of Westminster’s £7bn estate.

“I only remember the setbacks and series of defeats,” he says. “Even when things have gone well in other respects, the number of programmes I’ve done where I’ve thought ‘this one will really break through, this will get people talking about history, this will win at the Baftas…’. And they come and go and just disappear into the ether. I think about the boat race I lost. I look at the projects the BBC said ‘no’ to, the ideas that never get off the ground. I wish the YouTube AV videos had 250,000 hits instead of 10,000.”

Today, Snow will be clambering in typical action-man style across Château de Gaillon in Normandy, “One of the most beautiful renaissance castles. Trashed in the revolution.” He adopts a military analogy to assess his own prospects. “The great generals get better because when they get setbacks for reasons out of their control they regroup, they keep coming back and they keep an eye on the final victory.

“George Washington suffered defeat after defeat but he never let himself get disillusioned. Historical parallels help us in our lives. I look at the towering statesmen such as Churchill. So one day I will write the book that blows everyone’s mind.”

A life in brief
* Born December 1978, youngest son of BBC journalist Peter Snow and Canadian journalist Ann MacMillan.

* Educated St Paul’s School, London and Balliol College, Oxford where he rowed three times in the Boat Race.

* Makes television debut alongside father in 2003 BBC film about El Alamein, followed by Battlefield Britain series.

* Snow and friends took three boats from Dover to Calais to help people stranded by the air-travel disruption caused by volcanic dust in 2010

* Married Lady Edwina Grosvenor, daughter of the Duke of Westminster, in November 2010

Interview with TV Choice Magazine

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

From here:
Dan Snow
Dan Snow
Filthy Cities

TV historian Dan Snow jokes that his latest project didn’t feel like the easiest way to make a living! Filthy Cities aims to bring to life the stinking histories of London, Paris and New York, with CGI ‘ageing’ the city streets.

Hands-on Dan, 32, goes down into sewers, shovels five tons of horse poo, butchers a pig with a medieval axe, and allows himself to be covered in lice and be bitten by a rat and a leech! TV Choice asks: in heaven’s name why?!

Er, Dan, what an unusual idea for a programme…
“It’s a rancid idea! But I’ve always been interested in waste and our society. Basically, human beings create the seeds of our own destruction. Our waste has the capacity to destroy us, and that’s quite a weird idea, really. We can only really live in these big cities because we’ve worked out ways to get rid of this waste, and so I wanted to go back and look at the medieval city, the early modern city and the very modern city to see how we’ve overcome these giant problems.”

The first programme looks at London. What was it like in medieval times?
“London was particularly bad. They had to put all the muck in carts and take it out to the fields, they’d chop up animals and empty the entrails into the Thames, which became one vast sewer. And, of course people would wash in the Thames and they’d get cholera. Conditions were unspeakably horrible.”

You actually stand in London’s River Fleet, which some people won’t know about.
“Yes, the river’s still there, it’s just confined into a tiny little sewer underground now. The thing about the Fleet is that it got so choked up with sewage that it actually stopped running as a river. Newgate Prison was there, and the smell and the disease were so unbelievably bad that medieval Londoners started worrying about the health of the prisoners!”

Was it difficult getting permission from city councils for some of the stunts in the series?
“It was a heck of a series to work on. You can imagine how hard it is to get five tons of horse manure dumped on a busy City of London street, or how to get the New York council to put a 6ft high block of frozen horse poo on the street to show what it would have been like in winter in the 19th century! But I was learning new stuff endlessly, it was absolutely fascinating.”

But didn’t you baulk at some of the things the producers got you to do, like being bitten by a rat?
“I baulked at everything, really! I went into a flat in New York where a mentally ill woman had shut herself in for 30 years, and the flat was full of human waste and rats and lice and all sorts of nasty things. So that was very unpleasant.”

Martina Fowler

Five Minutes With: Dan Snow

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

TV presenter Dan Snow talks to Matt Stadlen about his famous family, his passion for history, why losing the University boat race helped him and his rescue mission to France during the ash cloud flight ban.

The short video interview can be found here.

My nine to five: Dan Snow

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

From here:

The television presenter and historian on working from home in his PJs, researching a forthcoming book and hitting the road with a film crew

Today I was up at 6am. No two days are the same for me. Some days I’m in my PJs all day, reading and writing and spending too much time on Facebook, and other days I’m up at 4am and taking a flight to Scotland to talk about some Anglo-Saxon treasure or going to help out at the British Museum. ­Depending on what I’m doing – whether it’s research for my book, or something for the One Show, my working days will always be different.
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Interview with Dan

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

Dan Snow – hot property on Sandra Kessell’s blog:

“Dan Snow is rushing between airport terminals. He’s flown overnight from Canada, it’s Monday morning and he is in the process of catching another plane to Malta. In true jet-setting style he’s conducting this interview in-between. Behind his familiar voice is the noise of tannoy announcements and baggage trolleys and he sounds a little tired as he negotiates other travellers but he’s a seasoned campaigner and used to pushing himself beyond his limits.”

Welcome to my world: Dan Snow

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

From here:

TELEVISION’S pin-up historian Dan Snow has teamed up with his father Peter and Peter’s cousin Jon to support Prostate Cancer Awareness Month (020 8222 7141,
But when the 30-year-old isn’t posing in his pants, he’s busy traipsing around the country investigating the life of Hadrian, reporting for The One Show and writing his forthcoming book on the Seven Years War. Around 35,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer every year in the UK, and one man dies of the disease every hour.
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Q&A: Dan Snow, historian

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

From here:

Dan Snow, 26, is a historian and the son of journalist Peter Snow. He was in the winning crew in the 2000 Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race, and captained the Oxford team the following year. Last year, he presented Battlefield Britain on BBC2 with his father and co-authored the accompanying book. He is working on a new series and book about world battles.

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My Mentor: Dan Snow on Peter Snow

Monday, June 1st, 2009

From here:

‘I don’t think there are many people who can explain a complicated idea better than dad’

Interview by Sophie Morris

Monday, 18 February 2008
Dan Snow
People say to me: “Oh, it’s really unfair. Your dad got you into television.” Yes, he did. But not by ringing up (former BBC2 controller) Jane Root and saying he wanted to do a programme with his son; he would have been laughed at.

From the time I was three years old until I was an adult he was presenting Newsnight all week and coming home at 1am, broken. Yet on Saturdays he was out of bed at 7am, driving me to Hastings, telling me about the battle on the way. He must have wanted to watch football or rugby or lie on the sofa, but instead he gave me a love of history and taught me about characters and how to look out for them, and how to tell stories. That’s where the real mentoring came in

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Dan Snow: How Britain nearly became the Irish Isles

Monday, May 25th, 2009

From here:

The TV historian talks about his new BBC Four series, How the Celts Saved Britain.

Dan Snow

‘Everyone always talks about 1066 and the Battle of Hastings,” says an exasperated Dan Snow, “but all the really big events happened 400 years earlier. We could, if things had gone only slightly differently then, be living on the ‘Irish Isles’ not the British Isles. Our capital should probably have been York.”

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Dan Snow: History boy

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

Article originally published in The Independent on Sunday (Saturday, 26 July 2008):

Dan Snow, son of Peter Snow, has stepped out of his father’s shadow to become the BBC’s latest highbrow heart-throb. Here, he talks to Sophie Morris about the future of history, the complications of family life and why he is a terrible boyfriend

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