David Reynolds

Professor of International History at The University of Cambridge and Fellow of the British Academy

TV history: Probing people’s comfortable assumptions

David Reynolds is Professor of International History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of the British Academy, with eleven books to his name. He has held visiting appointments at Harvard, Nihon University in Tokyo and Sciences Po in Paris. He is also one of Britain’s most highly-respected television historians. His programmes on Churchill (Churchill’s Forgotten Years), Stalin (1941 and the Man of Steel), Roosevelt (1945 and the Wheelchair President) and the series on the First World War (Long Shadow) have won various awards and attracted audiences in some cases of over two million, as well as going global via Netflix. He also wrote and narrated a ninety-part radio series for BBC Radio 4, America, Empire of Liberty.

This case study explores how print features and TV/radio documentaries may help to create a better understanding of history among both policymakers and the general public.

After completing an undergraduate history degree at Cambridge, Reynolds spent a year studying in the United States and also travelling some 10,000 miles on a Greyhound bus-pass. As a result he became fascinated by the country and especially by the cultural differences between America and Britain:

‘So I looked for a PhD topic that would throw light on transatlantic relations as a whole. I embarked on my research in the mid-1970s, just when the Second World War documents had been opened at the Public Record Office, so this was cutting-edge archival stuff. I conceived of the PhD as a project that was not just about diplomacy – Chamberlain, Churchill and Roosevelt, etc – but also about transatlantic attitudes then and now.

That set a pattern. From the start of my professional life I’ve always wanted to work on topics that relate to the world in which we live. When, for instance, I taught a course at Cambridge in the 1990s on 20th-century international relations I made a point of including in the final lecture something from that morning’s newspaper. Just to say, “History isn’t over: we are part of it – and it’s part of us.”’

His first TV project was in 1988, serving as principal historical adviser for a series on Britain and America, An Ocean Apart, narrated by David Dimbleby. The programmes and accompanying book, which he co-authored with Dimbleby, first brought his ideas to a much larger audience. In 2004 he started working with the TV director Russell Barnes who, some years before, had been one of his students at Christ’s College Cambridge.

‘Russell got in touch to inquire if I would consult on a pilot history project. That didn’t come to much but in the process he asked: “What are you working on at present?” I said I’m writing a book about what Churchill did after 1945. Russell said: “What’s so interesting about that?” I tried to explain, adding a few stories and it was actually those anecdotes that struck him. He saw a possible film, I did a screen-test and it took off from there. All the television films I’ve done, now thirteen of them, have been collaborations with Russell. It’s a very creative partnership. We work well together, bat scripts to and fro, and have enormous fun when filming. Yet the original opportunity just came out of the blue.’

Most of Reynolds’ TV and radio programmes have grown out of his academic work:

Churchill’s Forgotten Years came off the back of writing In Command of History, my book about Churchill’s war memoirs which won the Wolfson History Prize. Two other three-part TV series that I did with Russell were built on major books – Summits and Long Shadow.

'In Summits I used examples from Chamberlain and Hitler to Blair and Bush to explore the pros and cons of high-stakes summitry between leaders. That’s a theme I’ve continued to examine, most recently through a set of essays on the summitry of the 1970s and 1980s, entitled Transcending the Cold War, which I worked on with Professor Kristina Spohr of the LSE – a former Research Fellow at Christ’s. My book The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century prodded people to climb out of the trenches and think about 1914-18 in unfamiliar ways – as memory and legacy, and also trans-nationally: why the British view on the conflict is so different from that of other countries.’

In Reynolds’ opinion:

‘On most issues of history, I think politicians aren’t fundamentally different from the general public. Many politicians and even civil servants seem to operate on crude or simplistic assumptions about what happened in the past and, more generally, about how and why change comes about. Although they may be very sophisticated political animals, when they are thinking historically they are probably as ill-informed and often prejudiced as most of the general public. (Much like I am about most issues of science!) That’s the point of trying to educate and explain. As a historian, you analyse but you do it through a storyline – thinking in time.

‘Thinking in Time’

Reynolds’ ideas about the relevance of history to public life have been deeply influenced by visits over the years to the United States. He found that American academics were more policy-orientated and had closer connections with government than was usual in Britain. Many move in and out of government office, usually serving one party or the other, and rising up the ladder of responsibility over the years – figures such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Joseph Nye and Condoleeza Rice. And they also reflect on their experiences.

‘A book that I really value, and wish had received much more attention in Britain, is by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May entitled Thinking in Time. This was the name of a course they ran at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard over a number of years for policymakers from Washington.’ 

Reynolds got to know Neustadt and May while he was at Harvard. They started from the assumption that people in government are frantically busy and have little time to think, let alone to read anything. Much of their life is crisis-management. So they tend to ask ‘What’s the problem here? How do we get out of it?’ Desperate for quick answers, they tend to grab hold of some off-the-shelf historical analogy, such as the ‘lessons of appeasement’, which appears to be relevant but is often superficial, inaccurate or inappropriate.

The key insight Reynolds gained from Neustadt and May was that:

‘The question should not be “What’s the problem” but “What’s the story?” In other words, ask first: “How did we get into this mess?” Let’s reconstruct that as a story because it might help us to see how we can get out of the mess.  This mode of thinking – so different from “What’s the problem” – discourages knee-jerk reactions and instant answers.’

This is where history comes in. History is essentially telling a story, ‘thinking in time’.

‘I believe that thinking in time is a really important exercise. What I want people to do is say “OK, what kind of historical background would be useful to know, to open up my frame of understanding beyond that of the press headlines and the 24/7 rolling news programmes?” On any current problem – in politics or indeed in daily life – there is value in cultivating some kind of historical perspective.’

Communicating with the public

Having achieved professional recognition with his appointment as a full professor at Cambridge and election as a Fellow of the British Academy, Reynolds welcomed the opportunity to present his work to a wider audience on TV, radio and in the press while continuing to research and write serious books and academic articles. Reactions to his work have confirmed his ‘latent belief’ that history is too important to be left to historians:

‘What I’m interested in is providing informed, archivally-based, but definitely not footnotes-in-your-face kind of history.’

Communicating with a wider audience required learning new skills. Reynolds was struck by an observation of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt about his celebrated ‘fireside chats’ on the radio in the 1930s. FDR insisted that he didn’t try to communicate with the American people as a whole. He said he was just speaking to a few individuals, say the postmistress, the schoolteacher, or the farmer down the road in Hyde Park, New York, where he lived. When facing the camera or microphone, Reynolds similarly imagines himself talking to half-a-dozen specific people: his late mother, his son, and a few neighbours who like history but aren’t academics. Visualising the audience really matters:

‘You have to realise that you are going into people’s living rooms at nine o’clock in the evening. At that sort of time they don’t normally welcome strangers. They certainly don’t want to be lectured by some severe or stodgy academic. They want to be informed, yes, but also entertained. There has to be an element of entertainment about it all. Not a laugh a minute, of course, or mere trivia. A lot of the entertainment comes when the audience feels you are enjoying what you’re doing, because that’s infectious.’

In the early days, he was advised by a veteran documentary-maker to “treat the camera as your friend,” recognising that behind that forbidding lens were real people – watching, listening, hopefully laughing. But audiences also want to be challenged. One BBC commissioning editor said he wasn’t looking for historians who appeared telegenic; he wanted historians who had something genuinely new to say and were passionate to say it. Reynolds has always thought carefully about content, trying to focus on issues that would challenge the audience’s assumptions.

Challenging the present

During 2016, for instance, he was keen to explore an angle of the Great War centenary that was less familiar in Britain than the Somme. Verdun was the site of the longest battle of the First World War, a brutal struggle between France and Germany that lasted most of 1916. Afterwards, in the 1920s and 1930s, the battlefield was a national shrine for the French. More recently, however, Verdun has become a place of reconciliation for the two former enemies, symbolized by a photo of François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl holding hands in the pouring rain at a joint Franco-German commemoration on 22 September 1984.

‘Recently I’ve done a lot about Verdun – a two-part series on Radio 4, a piece for the New Statesman and several talks at history festivals.  For the British Verdun offers an unfamiliar window into how the French and Germans think about the two world wars. In the 1950s European integration was for them a surrogate peace treaty in the West, drawing a line under the Second World War. After three centuries of conflict, the new attitude was, in effect, “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

We British, however, have not moved on in that way from the two world wars. The clichéd account of ‘our finest hour’ in 1940 is a celebration of splendid isolation – voiced anew by many Brexiteers during the June 2016 referendum. Nor did the Cameron-Osborne propaganda for “Remain” offer a positive “take” on the European Union, indulging instead in relentless scare-mongering about a Brexit economic apocalypse.

So I lament the intellectual crassness of the campaign on both sides – its “historical deficit” if you like. My reading of history – some of it set out in an early book called Britannia Overruled – is that Britain’s security and prosperity has depended to a significant (and insufficiently recognised) extent on stability and peace on the continent. The second half of the 20th century was so much better in Western Europe than the first half of the century, with the European Community a big part of the explanation, and we were among the beneficiaries.

Of course, the modern EU is ponderous and at times frankly stupid but, for me, that’s why the UK should have engaged seriously in alliance diplomacy – building coalitions for reform instead of shouting from the sidelines, or hand-bagging our partners, and now yelling “let’s get out” without much clue about where to go next.’

He uses his research in part to probe people’s comfortable assumptions and try to make them be more reflective about their country and the world in which they live.

‘I am unrepentantly British, indeed English, but I’m definitely not a Little Englander. I think this country has suffered hugely from the complacency engendered by being on the winning side in two world wars. We are particularly obsessed with those wars – 1914-18 as tragedy, 1939-45 as triumph – and our cult of World War Two is on a par with that of Russia. I try to interrogate those wars and their legacies and make people think… not necessarily to agree with me but to take a broader and more nuanced view of historical situations.’

Reynolds also likes narrating histories that eschew simple and easy moral punchlines, ‘because life is morally ambiguous and history is morally ambiguous’. This was the thrust of his film on Stalin, the ‘man of steel’.

‘So in 1945 the war was won – Hitler was defeated and Nazism crushed – but victory brings this appalling dictator right to the heart of Europe. Getting rid of one evil can sometimes create another. How do you deal with that big moral question? I didn’t offer an answer – I explored the story, raised the question and left viewers to ponder it.

Despite the intellectual horror-show of the Brexit referendum, I still believe in history as a democratic project. I work on the assumption, or hope, that many of the public are rational people and will respond to some kind of informed statement. I guess everything I do is predicated on that belief. In the end, I am an educator.’


Based on his experience of academic research, of writing books and newspaper articles, and in crafting documentaries for TV and radio, Reynolds believes policymakers, historians and the public all need to remember that:

  • History matters. Maintaining a historical perspective is essential in public and private life.

‘Time is an inescapable dimension. We all live in the stream of time. And we need to think in time as well. That’s vital for moving into the future.’

  • Communicating with policy makers is at root no different from communicating with the general public.

‘We are historical animals. Every day, when we go home in the evening, we construct a narrative of what has happened. We probably glide over things that were messy or embarrassing, and dwell on moments that were positive. As we do so, we are “making history.” What I’m asking is that people should do this in a more sophisticated and self-conscious way when thinking about the world we live in.’

  • When historians present anything on television, there has to be an element of entertainment about it.

‘To communicate effectively, you have to convey a sense that what you are doing is exciting, important and also fun.’

Further Reading

Long shadows of old wars:


The return of big history: the long past is the antidote to short-termism:


Faculty of History website at The University of Cambridge:


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  • David Reynolds is Professor of International History at the University of Cambridge, a Fellow of the British Academy, and one of Britain’s most highly-respected television historians. 

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