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Bettany Hughes: I was told by a BBC producer that nobody wants to be lectured at by a woman on TV

Historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes on Channel 4's Treasures of the World
Historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes on Channel 4's Treasures of the World - Channel 4

Best and worst is a regular interview in which a celebrity reflects on the highs and lows of their life.

Bettany Hughes OBE is a historian, writer and broadcaster specialising in classical history. She grew up in London and has presented many documentaries on both ancient and modern subjects for which she has received multiple awards. She is a visiting research fellow at King’s College London, patron of The Iris Project, a charity that promotes the teaching of Latin and Greek in UK state schools and has written five books. She is vice-president of the National Churches Trust. Hughes and her husband, Adrian Evans, who was Pageant Master for the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, have two daughters and live in London.

Best of Times

Best time of your childhood?

My parents Peter and Erica were actors, and often out of work, so they were at home a lot. The kitchen table was the absolute centre of our life and the best times were sitting around the kitchen table chatting and eating my mother’s delicious food. My father organised a cricket club and my brother Simon was a keen cricketer so all of that happened there.

Bettany with her father Peter at her childhood home in London
Bettany with her father Peter at her childhood home in London

It was the hippie 1970s and we had lodgers who founded Great Frog Jewellery, making silver necklaces in the upstairs front room. Staying with us let them save money to open their first shop in Carnaby Street, and now they are a big international concern. My mother wrote history and nature books with the local vicar, written at the kitchen table late into the evening. That taught me it’s good to work on something that uses your brain and you care about. And that it’s still possible to prioritise family.

Best moment of your school days?

I finished my A-levels and I was playing Snow White in the school play, and I fell in love with Prince Charming. And I remember cycling, freewheeling down a hill at night on the way back from school. I never wore a helmet and never had lights; it was that sort of carefree age. It was the most beautiful warm, hot summer, and I thought this is what perfect happiness feels like. Now I know there was a sacred spring there and nunneries and ancient kinds of religious institutions so that hill had a very good vibe to it.

Best thing about living in the same part of London as you grew up?

The fantastic sense of continuity across the generations. Some of the women who used to look after me when I was a young child are still around. There’s a wonderful woman called Tiggy who would bake us bread when we would go to her house as children, and we could take her dog for a walk. The fact that she’s still around now as a wonderful nonagenarian, and we can still keep in contact and share moments together, is an incredible thing.

Best decision you’ve ever made?

Sticking to my guns and becoming a historian even though everybody was saying: don’t bother, history is outdated and nobody cares. A BBC producer famously told me nobody watches history on television, nobody wants to be lectured at by a woman, which put a bit of fire in my belly.

Bettany examines an ancient statue in Rome
Bettany is proud she stuck to her guns and became an historian

It was so astonishing to hear. When you’re a young person, that kind of comment is very undermining, destroying everything you believe in. I reasoned it’s either going to destroy me or be the making of me. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I had a physical feeling, moving from total despondency to: I’ll make it my mission to prove him wrong. It took about 10 years, so it really was a mission.

Best charity shop find?

If people ever see me and I’m not out in the desert or up a mountain, I’m always wearing this black strappy Max & Co dress, which I got from a charity shop. I’ve been wearing it for the past 15 years and it’s beginning to fall apart. But that dress has been my ally because I can put a jumper over it and wear it to the library, or put on a sparkling little cardigan for drinks with an ambassador. So it’s been my most versatile item through every kind of experience you can imagine.

Happiest time of your life?

The birth of my two daughters Sorrel and May. My first daughter was born in the morning, as Big Ben was striking five. Sorrel was born at St Thomas’, by Westminster Bridge, and I heard the big bongs and it felt like an auspicious moment. With my second daughter, May, the moment she was born she was snuggling into me and I made her second name Alma, which means nurturing spirit.

Best historical encounter?

Crawling underneath the pyramid, into the bedrock itself of the Great Pyramid, and tasting the walls with the salt, realising I was in what 50 million years ago had been an ocean. I felt an incredible physical connection to what is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. I get terrible claustrophobia, but it was worth it.

Crawling underneath a pyramid was one of the most memorable experiences for Bettany
Crawling underneath a pyramid was one of the most memorable experiences for Bettany

When I’m filming I have my cameraman with me who knows I might panic. He’s my great ally, always talking me through, saying, “It’s OK”. It’s fine when I’m filming, it’s more when I’m researching myself that it’s a nightmare.

Best moment in front of the camera?

I was with a Bedouin family in the Empty Quarter in Oman and suddenly they offered me a bowl of fresh camel’s milk – being milked as I stood there. There were flies everywhere and I braced myself to pretend it was delicious, but it was one of the most fabulous things I’ve ever tasted.

Best historic discovery you’ve made?

Diving in the waters between Greece and Turkey and discovering an entire dining service on a boat, probably making its way to Alexandria. A short circuit into so many people’s lives 2,300 years ago and into a tragedy.

Worst of Times

Worst school memory?

I was bullied a bit at primary school because I was bookish. Once after school, somebody arranged a club where a boy had to fight me and people bet on who would win. And I was so sick with worry, not because of the fight, but because I thought I’d get into trouble. It’s the first time in my life I’ve been cracked on the chin and, like in cowboy movies and in cartoons, you hear that noise.

When it happened and the crack sounded, I thought, “wow, it really does make the sound you see in cartoon strips”. I was fighting against a boy so I was definitely out-muscled. The organisers felt a bit guilty after it had been going for a bit. Then everybody melted away and I was able to leave as well.

Worst decision you’ve ever made?

In the years after graduating I had a chance to do an extra academic year for a History of Art diploma at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and I got a student scholarship to attend. But I thought that felt too easy and predictable. Instead, I became an apprentice silk painter, and that lasted about two weeks. I thought I was being more honest, because I was experiencing what it was like to be a medieval apprentice. But I should have just stuck at it and done the diploma.

Worst moment on an historic site?

I was leaping around on the upper floors of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, jumping from one ledge to another, and I didn’t notice that there was an overhanging carving. So I jumped and cracked my head on the carving, which made me dizzy and I very nearly fell. Luckily, the cameraman behind me saw what happened, caught me and pushed me back into the building.

Bettany explores an underground burial temple in Malta
Bettany: "You’ve always just got to carry on filming, no matter how much danger you’re putting yourself in" - Tim Knight/ Sandstone Global

You’ve always just got to carry on, no matter how much danger you’re putting yourself in. We were in the middle of filming so I had to keep going. I didn’t have time to dwell on getting anxious about doing that kind of thing. A good lesson I learned from my parents is the sense you’re lucky to be working. So I appreciate every minute.

Worst time travelling?

Drinking some bad water when I was on the borders of Kazakhstan and Siberia, where the next loo was 150 miles away was quite a challenge. I was researching Bronze Age cities. At least there wasn’t a crew around, just other archaeologists to witness my humiliation. It lasted for two days, I was in my early 30s, and I felt a long way from home.

Worst time writing one of your books?

With my first book Helen of Troy, people were saying it’s a very fluffy subject. And I was thinking the fact that she’s a female character from myth and history doesn’t make it fluffy. So it was trying to keep my conviction in the subject, even though I knew there were critics before I’d even written a single page. It was hard, but it makes you even more invested in it and more determined to prove them wrong.

Worst of the worst?

I find people who stint on love and help, and are simply tight, a real turn-off. I love people who have a generosity of spirit, body and soul, which you often find in the most challenging of places.

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World by Bettany Hughes is out now (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £25)

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