Many, many years ago, I produced David Starkey's first film for the BBC. A short film about my favourite Tudor, Henry VII, it wasn't Starkey's TV debut - he'd already appeared, clad in leathers riding a motorbike on Channel 4 - but he was still a media neophyte and still, at the time, a practicing academic at the London School of Economics. In other words, he was still taken seriously.
It's fair to say that everyone hated working with him. Film crews often loathe presenters, especially new ones who fluff their lines and hold up lunch. Starkey was no exception. He wasn't very organised, fluent or focused and he seemed oblivious to the time and money his fluffs cost everyone. But we were all pretty patient, out of deference to his intellect and expertise. And he had a gift that most academics lacked: the arguments he spun were often, intrinsically visual. For television - especially TV history - this was a godsend.
When the film was completed, dubbed, mixed and transferred to videotape (yes, that's how long ago this was) something about it bugged me. We showed a piece of architecture to show how Henry had used Tudor imagery as an early form of propaganda. This is a fairly standard argument nowadays but what bothered me was that, for some reason I still can't explain, I wasn't certain that the gate Starkey cited as evidence had been built in Henry VI's lifetime. So I phoned up to check. I was right; the film's commentary was wrong. We had to re-cut, re-dub, re-mix and transfer, again, to videotape.
I didn't work with David Starkey again - mostly my future projects were on very different topics but also because I hadn't enjoyed the experience. Presenters, to my mind, were there for expertise. Without that, they were just annoying. But I watched as Starkey's hunger for attention was fed. I saw him quite literally swell with delight as the media, unconcerned with facts, encouraged him to present increasingly extreme arguments, without much care about the correctness of any detail. I heard producers exclaim that, however tedious he might be to work with, at least he was guaranteed to pull a big audience. If outrage was all the rage, Starkey delivered. Anyone who felt uncomfortable could reach for irony as their cover story.
That he should self-destruct was inevitable. The sado-masochistic game, in which he shocked and giggled his way through radio and television, was one that delivered diminishing returns. Sooner or later, he'd have to go too far because that was what everyone wanted him to do. The media fed the monster and it roared. I am, however, a little sad. Because inside what is now a bloated and ridiculous figure was once a half-way decent thinker, always rude but occasionally interesting.
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