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Taylor, A.J.P. (1906-1990)

Historian, Presenter

Main image of Taylor, A.J.P. (1906-1990)

Although professing to rarely watch it himself, Alan John Percivale Taylor (born in Birkdale, Lancashire on 26 March 1906) probably achieved more than any other individual in both the popularisation of history through the means of television and the employment of academics to do so. Arguably the best-known historian of his day - certainly the most controversial - Taylor was a brilliant, erudite storyteller who could render the most complex historical narratives understandable to a wide public.

He first came to public attention through his wartime BBC radio broadcasts on a range of topical issues, but it was with his appearances in the popular television discussion series In the News (BBC, 1950-56), produced by John Irwin and Edgar Lustgarten, that he first encountered fame.

Invariably argumentative, he notoriously refused to converse with the other panellists in one episode and, following one further appearance, the BBC dropped him from the series. He eventually returned after a ten-month break, but, aggrieved at the break-up of the regular panel and the way the series was becoming a platform for party political promotion, he made his final appearance on 10 December 1954.

The 'sulky don', as he was now referred to in the popular press, became openly critical of the BBC in the columns he wrote for various newspapers. He championed the cause for independent television, becoming vice-president of the Popular Television Association, a body campaigning for the introduction of commercial television.

With the launch of ITV, the same four panellists from In the News renewed their live discussions, now free from BBC interference, in the Sunday lunchtime series Free Speech (ITV, 1955-61), again produced by Irwin and Lustgarten (the series would return in September 1974 for a year's run, with Taylor again a participant) .

It was Irwin who first suggested to Taylor that he present some of his Oxford University lectures to a wider television audience. The resultant three-part series, Challenge (ITV, 1957), on the Russian Revolution, led to further commissions, including the thirteen-part Alan Taylor Lectures: When Europe was the Centre of the World (ITV, 1957-58) and the six-part First World War (ITV, 1961) .

With Challenge, the frequent cut-aways to the studio audience were thought a distraction. In his remaining television lectures, Taylor simply talked directly to camera. The more discerning audience was captivated by Taylor's skill. Lecturing without recourse to notes (he had never used them for any of his lectures since the 1930s) or an autocue, Taylor skilfully drew everything to a conclusion with perfect timing (Taylor initially broadcast live, then later recorded in one take, keeping one eye on a large clock mounted behind the camera) .

Rather surprisingly, considering his earlier vehemence towards the Corporation, Taylor returned to the BBC in 1962 for the series The Twenties (the return was largely due to producer John Irwin's own return to the BBC), in which he lectured on the political affairs of that decade. From this point on, Taylor recorded for both channels, including Men of 1862 (BBC, 1963), on six major figures of that period, The Big Rows (ITV, 1964), in which he considered six historically important general elections, and World War (ITV, 1966), on the Second of those momentous events.

Following the five-part Revolution 1917 (ITV, 1967), there was a nine-year hiatus before producer Edward Mirzoeff invited Taylor to return to the BBC to recommence his lecture series. This began with The War Lords (1976), in which he looked at six world leaders during the Second World War. His two remaining BBC series were How Wars Begin (1977) and Revolution (1978), the latter a series of six lectures on major European revolutions.

The one series Taylor shot on film, for Granada Television, was Edge of Britain, a four-part series transmitted in the Granada region only in September /October 1980, in which he revisited the Northern towns of his youth with his wife. A re-edited one-hour version was networked on 21 January 1981.

His final lecture series was How Wars End (Channel 4, 1985), by which time he was suffering from nominal amnesia and Parkinson's Disease, a fact apparent in his now rather halting delivery. He succumbed to the disease five years later, dying in London on 7 September 1990.

John Oliver

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