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David Starkey: Laughing all the way to the library

Friday, 8 March, 2002, 17:21 GMT
As the historian Dr David Starkey becomes Britain's highest-paid television presenter, Caroline Frost of the BBC's News Profiles Unit, looks at his transformation from pugnacious academic to unlikely hero of the small screen.

At a time when television appears to split every formulaic atom, Dr David Starkey is the exception that proves the rule. He's openly gay, easily irascible, armed with a passion for history and an acid tongue.

And he's in demand. Channel 4 have promised the controversial historian £2 million to write 25 hours of television, which includes an 18-part series on the British monarchy. This works out at £75,000 an hour.

A fortune at Four: A deal worth £2 million for Starkey

This is £15,000 more than his nearest rivals Cilla Black and Anne Robinson, but Starkey is typically defiant about the size of his pay check. Of these other mega-salaried performers, he says, "It takes them ten seconds to prepare for their shows. It takes me three months to make one hour."

The golden handcuffs deal illustrates Channel 4's confidence both in Starkey and the current appeal of history programmes. The popularity of Timewatch, Secret History and Simon Schama's History of Britain attest to our growing fascination with all things past.

Channel 4 has reason to trust. More people tuned in to Starkey's series on Elizabeth I than they did to Ally McBeal, and his most recent series, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, was beaten in the ratings only by Big Brother.

Some historians are equivocal about the quality of Starkey's scholarship, describing him as "very good at coming up with ideas, but pushes them too far". He certainly has a knack for plucking the most colourful strands of history for his television audiences.

Starkey's study of Elizabeth drew millions of viewers

Under the presenter's auspices, the bodice-ripping personalities of the Tudor period become what Starkey calls "extremely superior English soap opera". History is the new rock 'n' roll.

No one is more perfectly positioned to provide the authority, drama and curiosity required for examining these courtly goings-on.

Armed with a first class degree from Cambridge and a high profile academic background, Starkey has carried throughout his life an indelible instinct to believe "absolutely nothing I heard".

The only child of a poor, northern, Quaker family, Starkey was born with a club foot and a mother who told him "what most people believed was just wrong".

Starkey says that "she made Margaret Thatcher look like a little Finchley housewife". She certainly armed her son with a lethal debating tongue.

Hampton Court: Tudor life made real by Starkey

He arrived from Cambridge on a scholarship from Kendal Grammar School and left it with the most glittering of prizes.

An orthodox academic life of lecturing and research beckoned, but the strength of his personality and opinions brought him an increasingly high profile on radio and in review columns.

Starkey came to national prominence in 1992 on the BBC Radio Four programme, The Moral Maze. As a self-styled "academic thug", his acerbic comments to the guests became an integral part of the show.

But he thinks comparisons with other dismissive presenters are unfair. He explains that "Anne Robinson gives it to people who can't fight back, and in a hi-tech way. Insult becomes perversion".

Victim's of Starkey's own lashing tongue may find this cold comfort. Of the Venerable George Austin, Archdeacon of York, he asked, "Doesn't he genuinely make you want to vomit with his fatness, his smugness, his absurdity?"

He could make guests very uncomfortable with his glinting stare, his implacable logic and controlled voice, part purr, part yap. With his authority and wit, he is a cross between Jeremy Paxman and Kenneth Williams.

The Daily Mail labelled him "the rudest man in Britain". One novelist described it as obvious that "Starkey was just spoiling for a fight, just wanted to domineer". Mary Kenny likened his tantrums to those "you get from an over-indulged only child".

Starkey with the Moral Maze team

Most annoyingly for victims of Starkey's onslaughts, he clearly delights in such epithets, and what he calls his "naughty boy" persona. He cites the earliest radio shows as his favourites, including the day he told Dame Jill Knight she was "essentially a silly woman in a silly hat".

And his distinctive form of presentation has reaped rich rewards. Channel 4 have paid for the whole Starkey package, the scholarship and populism, the contempt and charm, the idiosyncratic passions.

Starkey may have his critics but, in an age where celebrity has been all but blanded-out, his fierce intelligence and refusal to compromise bring a breath of fresh air.

Or as David Starkey puts it so humbly: "It shows you don't have to be dim to make money on TV."

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