On Tuesday morning, I found myself sitting in a pub in London and repeatedly blowing the foam off a pot of porter while somebody filmed me and a gaggle of curious regulars looked on. Academia has often taken me to some rather unexpected places, but this was something of a new level. As I wiped the foam from my clothes for a second or third time, I wondered how I’d explain this to the English teacher at school who had such lofty hopes for my future career.
Well, there was method in the madness. Along with excellent director John and superb runner Rebecca, I was making a short film for BBC Arts as part of my participation in the BBC / AHRC New Generation Thinkers scheme. The scheme was established to find academics ‘with the ability to turn ground-breaking academic ideas into radio and television programmes’. After making two radio programmes and writing a couple of articles, this was the final stage of the scheme: I was to step into the shoes of Amanda Vickery or Lucy Worsley for a day, and try to convey the excitement and fascination of my research area—the literature and culture of late eighteenth-century Britain—to a public audience.
The particular subject I wanted to address was a moment in 1794 when the freedom to imagine itself was at stake. While not wishing to ‘spoiler’ my film—which should be broadcast on the BBC Arts website sometime in March—it looks at three trials for high treason that were held at the Old Bailey, in which the leaders of three reform societies were accused of ‘imagining the King’s death’. Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall were all leading figures in two societies – the London Corresponding Society and the Society for Constitutional Information—that were agitating for British political reform in the wake of the French Revolution. The authorities feared that their activities might lead to a French-style revolution taking place on British soil – and they were put under heavy surveillance by a network of government spies. In this climate, any word or action might be read as evidence that they were imagining the king’s death – including, in John Thelwall’s case, blowing the head off a pot of porter and saying, ‘This is the way I would serve kings’. (Or so said the spy. Thelwall claimed he said ‘tyrants’.)
In 2015, the idea of freedom of expression is seldom absent from the pages of newspapers, the studios of broadcast media and the seething, mutating networks of words and images that constitute our social media. I’ve become fascinated with the way that people and institutions lay claim to the idea of freedom of expression—often selectively—and particularly in how they sometimes retrospectively insert it into our national history as a cherished ‘British value’. The film is an attempt to problematise this: to explain how ‘British values’ were sometimes seen as diametrically opposed to the idea of ‘freedom of expression’, and to chart one of the moments when our modern understanding of such concepts struggled into life.
Making programmes for a general audience has been a fascinating experience, and this last stage of the New Generation Thinkers scheme didn’t fail to throw up some food for thought about the place of public engagement in academia. It’s not all been plain sailing; in particular, there is little space in this kind of activity to acknowledge the labours and innovations of those scholars who went before you and influenced your thinking. For somebody used to footnoting every statement and attributing every citation, this can be distinctly uncomfortable; you’re left feeling that you’re not so much standing on the shoulders of giants as trampling rudely all over their faces. My film, for example—just like my academic writing—draws heavily on the brilliant work of scholars like John Barrell, Jon Mee and Mary Thale. But this would mean little to most viewers: so, in the programme, it goes unacknowledged. Let me use this blog post to say that if anyone finds this subject interesting, they should really check out Barrell’s Imagining the King’s Death: Figurative Treasons, Fantasies of Regicide, 1793–1796 (OUP, 2000), Mee and Barrell’s Trials for Treason and Sedition 1792–1794 (Pickering & Chatto, 2007) and Thale’s Selections from the Papers of the London Corresponding Society 1792–1799 (CUP, 2008).
Nonetheless, there is a value in this kind of public-facing project that I don’t think an academic can find anywhere else. In writing my script, I have found a necessity to distil, to condense, to truncate, that makes certain ideas crystallise from a vast matrix of facts and opinions in illuminating ways. In receiving audience feedback from my previous programmes, I’ve been delighted by the variety of strongly-felt opinions and incisive questions about my work, which demonstrates, to me at least, that the humanities are more important than ever.
Even blowing the head off a pot of porter was instructive. In doing this small thing, I was struck by the violent explosion of foam that even a tiny puff of breath could cause; the distance it travelled; the mess it made. It gave me a tiny flash of (speculative) insight into the anger Thelwall might have felt at that moment at the political corruption he saw around him; the shock or exuberance with which his companions might have viewed the gesture; the resonance that the spies and their paymasters might have seen in it, in a climate where the violence recently committed on the body of the French king was emblematic of all sorts of trauma. For a split second, it made history come alive for me. And if it can do the same for the viewer, that alone will make the funny looks from the regulars in the Viaduct Tavern worth it.