Video interviews with historians

In the mid 1980s Pat Thane, Alastair Reid and F.M.L. Thompson, the then director of the IHR, began a project to conduct interviews with leading British historians. In her article about the project, ‘Interviews with Historians’, The Historian, 36 (1992), pp. 18–20, Thane notes that ‘We decided upon videotaped rather than audio-taped or printed interviews … because aspects of personality are evident in expression and gesture as they are not in the written or spoken word’. In today’s multi-media world, this seems remarkably prescient, and the resulting interviews are an opportunity to see as well as hear the men and women who have shaped the discipline in the 20th century, many sadly now dead.

Not all, however, were naturals in front of the camera, something which was compounded by the limitations of funding and technology at the time (for example, only static cameras were used). Roger Adelson and Russell Smith reviewed the series for Albion in 1999, and concluded that ‘About half of the interviewees appear uncomfortable in front of the camera, which is understandable because historians are known more for what they write rather than for the personality they project’. However, ‘The very best interviews reveal the humanity of historical study by demonstrating how the lives of historians have affected their perspective on the past’ (R. Adelson and R. Smith, ‘Videotaped interviews with British historians, 1985–8’, Albion: a Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies , 31 (1999), 257–68).

Joan Thirsk

This reflection on formative influences is central to the interviews, during which subjects were encouraged to talk about their lives and careers, the interaction of the personal and the professional, and their thoughts about both their own research and the development of the discipline more generally (a very similar approach to the one taken by the IHR’s Making History project in the early 21st century).

A total of 28 interviews were recorded before funding for the project came to an end (it was supported over the years by the Nuffield Foundation, the Twenty-Seven Foundation and the Royal Historical Society). The list of historians included shows a balance of periods, and geographical and theoretical focus. And unlike many such groupings, women are relatively well represented. Thane remarked that ‘I have an especial interest in selecting female historians, to try to assess what differences there may have been between male and female experiences in the profession’.

Asa Briggs with Jose Harris
Alec Cairncross with Kathleen Burk
Hugh Clegg with Gordon Phillips
Donald Coleman with Negley Harte
Maurice Cowling with Michael Bentley
Phyllis Deane with Nick Crafts
Geoffrey Dickens with Bob Scribner
Geoffrey Elton with Bob Scribner
Moses Finley with Keith Hopkins
Margaret Gowing with Charles Webster
Christopher Hill with Penelope Corfield
Rodney Hilton with John Hatcher
Eric Hobsbawm with Pat Thane
Michael Howard with Brian Bond
Peter Laslett with Keith Wrightson
Oliver Macdonagh with Roy Foster
Rosalind Mitchison with Christopher Smout
Joseph Needham with Gregory Blue
Henry Pelling with Ross McKibbin
Harold Perkin with Pat Thane
Steven Runciman with Jonathan Riley-Smith
Christopher Smout with Christopher Whatley
Lawrence Stone with Keith Wrightson
Joan Thirsk with Ann Kussmaul
Dorothy Thompson with James Epstein
E.P. Thompson with Penelope Corfield
Michael Thompson with Avner Offer
Hugh Trevor-Roper with Blair Worden

All of the interviews are available on DVD from the University of London online store.

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