The following interview appeared as an extract in BAFTA's official 2023 Awards brochure, which is now available on Issuu.
©Robert Wilson/The TimesPortrait: Robert Wilson/The Times
The broadcaster, writer and historian receives one of BAFTA’s highest honours in recognition of his groundbreaking screen career.
“It feels very moving to be recognised by the industry in which I’ve spent most of my adult life,” says Professor David Olusoga, reflecting on his BAFTA Special Award.
That a boy born in Lagos and brought up on a Gateshead council estate should become one of Britain’s leading television historians, broadcasters and filmmakers is testament to Olusoga’s own brilliance – and to the power of television.
One almost-forgotten programme, BBC Two’s 1986 docu-drama Artists and Models, about three French 18th century painters, changed everything for Olusoga. “I just adored it – it blew my mind when I was 16 and it hasn’t aged at all. It showed history in a way that was exciting, life-affirming and horizon-expanding. The next summer I went travelling around Europe and went to all the art galleries I could to see the paintings depicted in that series,” he recalls.
Television, though, took a back seat to education for the next decade. By the age of 25, Olusoga had collected a history degree from the University of Liverpool and a master’s from Leicester. But with a PHD looming, he realised he was on “a conveyor belt” to academia.
“I didn’t come from a background with ambitions of working in elitist areas like television. Getting all the education you can when you come from a disadvantaged background is pretty much a no-brainer, but it hadn’t involved making many choices,” he says.
I had no contacts, friends or family in television, but the one thing I did have was lots and lots of ideas.
Fortunately for millions of television sofa historians, Olusoga realised he was making a mistake. He took a postgraduate broadcast journalism course in Leeds and then worked in BBC radio for a few years. “I had no contacts, friends or family in television, but the one thing I did have was lots and lots of ideas,” he recalls.
Eventually, a BBC commissioner gave one of them the green light: Ebony Towers: The Black Intelligentsia (2003). Namibia: Genocide and the Second Reich (2005), which Olusoga produced and directed, followed. The story of a forgotten genocide in the then colony of German South West Africa, was, says Olusoga, “the most inspiring moment of the first half of my career”.
It was also the subject of his first book and, for the next two decades, Olusoga has combined parallel careers: making and presenting television and writing. “They’re very different – writing a book is a solitary experience; television is collaborative – but they complement one another. It’s great to make a TV programme with a big team, but so too is it to sit down with a couple of hundred books and old documents.”
Over the past couple of decades, television has truly embraced history, which Olusoga describes as “one of the great passions of the British people”, pointing out that visiting castles and stately homes is as popular as going to football.
Television history spans such popular programmes as the family-tree series Who Do You Think You Are? and Olusoga’s own A House Through Time (2018-2021), and hard-hitting documentaries including his BAFTA-winning BBC film, Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners (2015).
But it is not potted history, with content dumbed down for a mass audience. “Brilliant programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? have demonstrated that people are fascinated by the process of history,” says Olusoga. “When I was a young producer and suggested filming with documents, people would call them dry, dull or dusty.
“That’s not the case. About half of Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners was me sitting in a room with documents. One of the things I’m most proud of about A House Through Time is that it’s encouraged thousands of people to do house histories.”
Television history, though, still struggles “to tell the story of class”, says Olusoga, who was born to a white British mother and a Nigerian father. “I’m more associated with programmes around race but I’m also working class – my [mother’s] family worked the land of the lowlands of Scotland for generations and then moved to industrial Tyneside in the late 19th century. The history of working class people is just as important to me as the history of Black people and of the Empire.” History, he adds, “shouldn’t all be about kings and queens”.
In 2019, Olusoga became professor of public history at the University of Manchester. In his inaugural lecture, he described his role as “connecting the circuitry between the world of public history on television and the world of academic history”.
In Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, one of the two programmes of which he’s most proud, Olusoga turned complex, forensic academic history into two hours of gripping television. “You can write an academic paper, and I’ve written many, but you won’t reach millions of people,” he says.
I can’t imagine sitting on the sidelines and watching television and not being involved in it.
His other favourite is Channel 4’s Unremembered – Britain’s Forgotten War Heroes (2019) about the African soldiers who served and died for Britain in World War I but were denied the honour of an individual grave. The documentary was based on an academic paper by Professor Michèle Barrett and presented by Labour MP David Lammy, with Olusoga as executive producer. “It led to a formal apology by the British Government for one of the biggest historical scandals that I, as a historian, had ever encountered – that’s the power of television,” argues Olusoga.
The professor is far from finished with television. He says: “The day I wake up and don’t have 10 projects that I would make if somebody commissioned me tomorrow would be the time to give up. I can’t imagine sitting on the sidelines and watching television and not being involved in it. I’m afraid I will be bothering commissioners for quite a long time.”
I became a historian not because of my history classes at school but because of seeing it on television.
Looking back over two decades in television, Olusoga adds: “I became a historian not because of my history classes at school but because of seeing it on television.”
He now finds himself sharing the screen with such historians and filmmakers as Michael Wood and Adam Curtis who influenced him when he was younger. “It never occurred to me that I might be able to do for others what television did for me, which was life changing. It’s a humbling thought,” he concludes.
“Whenever people stop me in the street and say how much my programmes have meant to them, I think about myself on a council estate in the 80s. I feel blessed to have been able to play a part in a medium that has that power.”
Words: Matthew Bell