The reluctant historian

How did Adam Hart-Davis – a man with ‘no interest in history’ – end up a TV historian?

If your telly preferences have been steered by an interest in science or history over the past 30 years or so, you’ll likely have come across the unique broadcasting style of Adam Hart-Davis.

Hart-Davis’s iconic persona has brought a unique face to informative entertainment to all ages, in various history and science programmes – such as Yorkshire Television’s Local Heroes, or the BBC’s What the Romans Did For Us.

Born and brought up in Henley-on-Thames, Hart-Davis spent his college years at Oxford before heading to York to complete his DPhil degree in organometallic chemistry.

He’s happy to chat about his time there, as well as his later, “accidental” foray into broadcasting. A year before completing his degree at Oxford, his tutor invited him to York to help write a book. Hart-Davis recalls some dubious meal arrangements when living with a friend and tutor, chemistry professor Dick Norman.

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“We stayed with Dick at the King’s Manor in the middle of York,” he says. “We had to cook for ourselves, but the only cookbook he had was one with no recipes that didn’t involve alcohol. In the morning we’d go out and buy food and a bottle of something or other, and then we’d go into the lab as we did every day. However, there were no fridges in the lab at that point, so everything had to go in the freezer. I remember one night we tried making scrambled eggs with eggs that had been frozen solid, and it was all rather difficult.”

Adam’s fondest memories of York came when he was doing his thesis in organometallic chemistry, which include setting himself on fire during an experiment.

I was looking at some reactions. This stuff I was making was very air-sensitive, so we had to make it in a vacuum or under nitrogen and keep it that way, which made everything a little bit tricky.

“We used to wash out all our flasks with bottles of acetone. We’d squirt it round the flask and tip it down the sink, and at some point I was doing this and all these things were air sensitive and some bits of molybdenum exposed to the air caught fire in the sink.

“Suddenly, I noticed all my fingers were on fire; a little flame about an inch long from all my fingersI thought, ‘oh, my hands are on fire’, and I couldn’t pick up a fire extinguisher because my hands were on fire! It all lasted about a few seconds but you react quite quickly when you’re on fire; I simply put one hand under each armpit and shut my arms down and all the flames went out.

“It was only acetone burning, but there were some spectacular moments like that.

Hart-Davis’ later involvement in history and broadcasting was the real accident, though. He got a job as a researcher at Yorkshire Television in 1977, “by mistake, of course. I’ve never been interested in History really. My only qualification in history is that I failed O-level,” he says.

When I couldn’t get an academic job in 1970/71, I applied for all sorts of things and the one I got was in publishing. I worked for five years for the Oxford University Press. But I got bored of that, it was a bit slow.

Two people came to lunch to talk about a book we were going to publish and one of them had just got off a plane from Moscow, and I thought, ‘I could work with these chaps if that’s what work is like’, so I rang them up and asked for a job and they said, ‘are you serious?’ and I said yes.

“That’s how I became a researcher in the science department at Yorkshire Television, just through cheek.”

Adam Hart-Davis’ animated presenting style would go on to make him a stalwart of historical and scientific broadcasting.

Advice to budding presenters

For any budding presenters, he gives the following advice: “Be enthusiastic, don’t bore anyone, tell good stories and show things if you possibly can.

“It’s not much good standing front of a brick wall and spouting; you may be able to, but you’ll have to be an extraordinarily good speaker to do that. It’s much better if you can show things which is why we always did demonstrations if we possibly could.”

With three books on the way and a “possible television programme”, we’ll all look forward to what he will bring us next. In the mean time it’s always worth checking out Adam Hart-Davis’s website, particularly if you’re interested in woodwork or toilets.