I grab Dan Snow on his way out of an after-dinner speech he’s given at Oxford – or more precisely, on his way out of the King’s Arms, where he bought drinks for all the dinner guests (no better way to make a good impression on a bunch of students). Will he let me interview him sometime? Yes – “I’d love to be interviewed!”
We meet at his private members’ club in Soho to, as Snow suggests, “have a drink and knock out the interview.” As you do. At the door he gives his name as “Snow, Dan Snow” which is pretty James Bond. Unfortunately the downside of being in the club is that my poor little voice recorder can’t cope with all the noise. But Snow has a solution: hold it like a microphone and narrate the recording – “we’re just getting some Coke delivered to the table. And we’re back.” Broadcasting habits clearly extend beyond the day job.
Snow has had an enviable life: he got a first from Oxford, was a three-time competitor in the Boat Race, and then jumped straight into making history programmes about everything from battlefields to filthy cities. He also has an illustrious background – he’s the son of TV presenter Peter Snow, the second cousin of journalist Jon Snow, and incidentally the great-great-grandson of Prime Minister David Lloyd George.
About his family and his childhood, he is unrelentingly positive, except for the complaint that “it’s almost problematic how little angst there was in my childhood. It’s made me a very uninteresting person.” His father is credited for his success – “I don’t think anything’s innate, I think it’s all nurture. It’s because he read to me every night, he talked about history and he developed my mind and he gave me the most amazing education anyone could ever have.”
They passed on to him a love of history, taking him to battlefields, museums, castles – “extremely boring as a child, but then you get Stockholm Syndrome and you start to love it.”
Now Snow is a doting father himself, which he says has completely altered his perspective and made him keen to emulate his own experience of parenting: being a father has, he says, “changed my perception of the importance of work, changed my enjoyment of being away from home and being drunk in foreign climes.”
I ask Snow if he’s tired of being known by his father and family. Actually, he says, “I think you can’t run from who you are.” He imitates his detractors (“oh that guy’s a loser and he’s just there ‘cos his dad’s famous”) and puts up a solid defence of his career in its own right: “If people watched my output and read my books I don’t think they’d come away with that opinion. If they don’t that’s okay. But I feel very confident that I’ve made my own name and I’m very proud of my dad.”
His path into television was certainly helped by the Snow family name. “I would not be anywhere near where I am now without my dad. But that’s not because he rang up the BBC and got me a series, because that’s not how it works.”
It was actually rowing that gave Snow his television break. While competing in the Boat Race, the coverage featured what Snow calls “a day in the life of me,” where he showed a camera crew his daily routine. It caught the eye of someone in development at the BBC, who proposed a programme featuring Peter Snow and his son.
“My dad said no, that’s a stupid idea, it’s a bit of a gimmick. So then luckily a year later, as I was weighing up my options, the offer came back, and at that stage I slightly encouraged my dad and he accepted and we decided to go for it!” The father-son duo co-presented a programme the Battles of El Alamein in 2002, and continued to work together, although in recent years Dan Snow has increasingly presented programmes by himself.
Snow seems to have been relentlessly busy for his entire life – visiting battlegrounds and museums, sailing, rowing, studying, university, making documentaries, writing books.
Has he even heard of procrastination? “I don’treally relax very much, but I find constant motion very relaxing, I find conversation very relaxing, I go to pubs and I drink lots of alcohol and I sit round with friends and argue and talk and shout at each other – and that I find quite relaxing. But I never sit around and watch DVDs or play computer games. I don’t watch TV for example, which is possibly a problem for someone who works in TV. But there you go.”
His most recent programme was on the history of Syria, which took him to the front line (where American news crews were astonished to find the BBC making a history documentary, of all things). Was he affected by the death and destruction around him? “Yes massively of course. It’s awful. You know the thing about all the military history programmes is that you merrily talk about hundreds of thousands of people being killed, and then you see one person being killed in front of you, and you see one person’s child who has been terribly badly injured, and you almost have a nervous breakdown, it’s totally awful.”
The Syria documentary attracted some serious criticism from the Telegraph: “The first clue that something was amiss were the locations through which Snow purposefully strode. He had little problem filming in the old city of Damascus at a time when journalists covering the war from the Syrian capital are forced to use pseudonyms. How did he get such good access, we wonder?”
Is there any truth in these allegations? Apparently not. “It was absolute tripe. It was the most nonsensically stupid thing to say about a programme. I have a lot of people who’ve written a lot of rude things about my programmes and they’re often right, but that was complete and utter crap. The idea that we made a deal with the Assad government, that we sat them down and said ‘if you let us in we’ll be nice about you’ – if we did that, we should be hanged, drawn and quartered. We should not be allowed to work at the BBC if we’d done that.” He adds with a little more humour, “I’ve written a reply which they’ve yet to publish, the little monkeys.”
Snow’s big thing at the moment is history-based apps, and he has all the zeal of a convert; when I ask him whether they could change the teaching of history in schools, his enthusiasm goes through the roof – “100%! God yes absolutely!” Snow’s app, Timeline WW2, demonstrates the potential he sees for apps as a sort of enhanced book. “I mean there’s no question, people can’t say they’re taking away from books – it is the book! All the work that goes into the book. You’ve got more pictures, more material – and you’re able to search it.”
In Snow’s eyes, apps have the potential to revolutionise the study of history – “a bit like the internet, when it began everyone was like ‘well I can see why it’s really good for things like sports and porn and teenage gossip but I really don’t see what the point is for history.’ Of course, ten years down the line, the internet’s absolutely extraordinary for history.” But are apps even better than books? “I love books. I love the feel of them, I love the smell of them, I have many in my house. But I think for many jobs, apps are better.”
For someone who frequently talks in schools and tries to make history accessible, one would think that Snow would have strong opinions on the teaching of history. Actually, as with any good historian, he can see all sides of the argument: “That’s why I’m not writing the syllabus! Because I agree with everything.”
Understanding of British history is important: “History should give the young people context to understand the society in which they live.” But “clearly, history shouldn’t be about encouraging patriotism,” and it wouldn’t do to ignore history beyond our borders, such as Martin Luther King and the struggle for black emancipation in the United States “because I think we’re outward looking and that’s an incredibly powerful and inspiring story. And one that’s hugely relevant in the modern British state and around the world.”
Politics and history never seem to be very far apart. Do politicians manipulate history? “It goes without saying. Politicians are absolutely disgraceful in their use and abuse of history. And they justify things all the time; they appeal to a distant past that sometimes didn’t exist. I go on Twitter all the time correcting politicians on stupid things and they ignore me.” His Twitter feed is full of historical titbits, political comments, a narration of his very busy life, and amusing put-downs directed at politicians and punters alike when they get their facts wrong.
After the interview is over, we sit and chat; about Oxford, about journalism, about his life and mine – which is more than I was expecting. Snow recalls his own confusions about what path to take after university: “When you’re facing a decision, remember that sometimes both options are good. Just because it’s a good decision doesn’t mean it’s binary, doesn’t mean one’s wrong.” His decisions certainly seem to have worked well for him, and I leave with a sense that Dan Snow is absolutely where he wants to be.