Cover image: © BBC

Dr Paul Dryburgh, principal records specialist at The National Archives, says ‘Danny Dyer’s Right Royal Family’ might be history with its tongue firmly in its cheek, but this fresh approach to TV history is an ‘example of a tiny acorn of a programme from which mighty oaks might grow’.

There are times, particularly in our social media age, when professional historians can be more than a little po-faced and self-important when it comes to the communication of history to mass audiences. There, I said it.

Enter, though, an unlikely herald – Danny Dyer, Eastenders actor, notorious Brit-flick hardman and geezer of all geezers, a modern-day everyman. Derided early in his career as ‘the byword for low-budget, no-quality Brit-trash cinema’, his role as landlord of the Queen Vic and the recent discovery of royal roots in a well-received episode of hit genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? have, it seems, transformed his career and status as wannabe national treasure.

With it all going cako bako, he claimed last October that his new two-part, primetime BBC1 series Danny Dyer’s Right Royal Family, which began on last Wednesday (30 January), would, bear with me here, ‘inject fun’ into history. It is an assertion at which even the late, great Sir Roger Moore would have raised more than one eyebrow, let alone the entire historical firmament.

It turns out that Danny ain’t gonna let us down. Oh no! In a fresh, effective approach to TV history aimed at the ordinary geezer (if not necessarily gal), the producers, Wall to Wall, should be congratulated for infusing fun with fact and embracing – often literally – the expert opinion of some of Europe’s finest medieval historians, art historians and archaeologists. Yes, this is history with its tongue firmly in its cheek. But it is history, nonetheless, and leads Danny – with the viewer – to some essential truths about the medieval period through a combination of practical demonstrations and tête-a-têtes with his experts.

The central conceit is the revelation that Danny is not just directly descended from Edward III, his 22-times great grandfather, but from some of the greatest figures in medieval European history. On his ‘nutty journey’ he meets the anxious Rollo Ragnvaldsson, Viking duke of Normandy, the ‘warrior king’ William the Conqueror, the ‘incredibly rich’ Henry II and the ‘unusual’, ‘sexy’ (and saintly) king Louis IX of France, their personalities mediated by ‘a lot of clever experts’. Danny’s tone of barely-concealed delight at gradually unlocking what ‘everyone else, historians and professors’ know about his family, his ‘blood’, is set early. Reclining in the back of a limo’ fondling his framed family tree, he drives past Buckingham Palace and utters the immortal line, ‘Wot ’appened? Why ain’t I plotted up there, tonguing a princess?’

Disappointingly, the producers could find no genuine member of the royal family for comment.

In its search for ratings, television regularly comes in for criticism for sacrificing nuance and the fineries of debate and evidence for sweeping generalisations and killer stories (as well as stories of killers). Hackneyed, now long debunked narratives are wheeled out by presenters, many of whom are fine scholars and writers but whose specialist areas lie elsewhere.

History knowledge in this country appears to be at a moment of existential crisis, for which mass media is undoubtedly partly responsible – as I write, a poll of more than 2,000 Britons commissioned by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust reveals shocking levels of ignorance over the scale and even occurrence of the Holocaust.

But, history is big business and the public appetite appears undimmed. The ability of television to entertain, inform and move should not be underestimated. In Danny Dyer’s Right Royal Family we have an example of a tiny acorn of a programme from which mighty oaks might grow. Judging from my Twitter feed, it had my family and my academic friends both rolling in the aisles and appreciating the medium as well as the message. Chapeau, Danny. Chapeau.

Dr Paul Dryburgh (left) is principal records specialist at The National Archives. His current research interests include ecclesiastical records, medieval Ireland, and the materiality of collections, particularly seals. He is also has a keen interest in the training of training of linguistic and palaeographic skills needed to access medieval records.Follow him for Right Royal updates and more on Twitter @pablodiablo74

The full version of this article is available on the Institute of Historical Research’s On History blog. Paul Dryburgh’s review of the second episode in the BBC series is available here.