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Histories of the Unexpected Live show comes to Wimpole History Festival

Sam Willis, presenter of the BBC’s The Silk Road and Invasion! and Professor James Daybell are presenting a show at the Wimpole History Festival that they promise will change the way you think about the past.

Based on their chart-topping podcast, Histories of the Unexpected LIVE demonstrates how even the most unexpected of subjects has a history and how those subjects link together in unexpected ways.

Histories of the Unexpected LIve with Sam Willis and James Daybell (10640463)
Histories of the Unexpected LIve with Sam Willis and James Daybell (10640463)

They will reveal what links together the Titanic, Pompeii, Neolithic cave painting, Victorian perfumes, electrical experiments on the human face, Glaswegian gangs, Shakespeare, chimneys, shoes and gloves.

Sam explains the moment when he realised he could find new ways into looking at history: “I was leading a tour around HMS Victory, Nelson's flagship at Portsmouth docks, and at the back of the ship is a huge window. The stern is completely glazed and the walls are three feet thick made of solid oak and someone said to me ‘Why have they put a window in the back of the ship?’ and I couldn’t answer it.

“I thought it was a very good question. I realised the only way you could answer it was by looking at the history of windows, and particularly the history of looking out of windows on naval warships, which unsurprisingly no one had ever written about. I said to James, ‘I think there might be a history of looking out of windows on warships’.”

James jumps in: “It’s not just a history of looking out of windows, it's all about throwing people out of windows; it's all about defenestration, which is about the start of the 30 years war and the defenestration of Prague, where a couple of diplomats were thrown out and it started three decades of warfare. Or it's about the Reformation, and not simply about looking out of windows or throwing people out of windows, it's about smashing windows. We suddenly realised we both had different takes on the past and could both take a topic that was unusual and explain it in different ways. That was the nucleus of the idea and since then we have done more than 100 podcast episodes and have written five books.”

After that eureka moment, they challenged themselves to uncover the history of subjects that no one had ever thought about - such as the history of bubbles, beards, dust, the paperclip’s link to the Stasi - and even the history of leaning.

James says: “We had mapped out 30 different chapter ideas for the book and then we were driving past a tree that was leaning to one side and Sam said to me I think we should do the history of the lean. And I said how on earth are we going to dot that?

Histories of the Unexpected (10640465)
Histories of the Unexpected (10640465)

Sam joins in: “It made sense to me because here was a tree about 200 years old that had been planted by someone in some botanical gardens but was now being held up, almost like braces straightening a wonky tooth. so someone had decided that a leaning tree was either an unsightly or dangerous.

“I realised you could do a history of people not liking wonky things. It was all to do with medieval architecture and if you think of the wobbly weaving streets in the Shambles in York the change from that to beautiful straight streets like the Champs Elysee in Paris where everything was mapped and the wonkiness of the medieval was wiped out.”

James adds: “It is also about women walking around with books on their heads - deportment - and James Dean slouching on cars.”

Their podcast, Histories of the Unexpected, has been a huge success and, with the help of playwright Daniel Jamieson they have turned it into a live show, which will be on at the Wimpole History Festival.

Wimpole History Festival. Picture: Martin Bond.
Wimpole History Festival. Picture: Martin Bond.

The reaction to the shows so far has been very positive. “People who have been reading history books all their lives come up to us and say, 'that has just fundamentally blown my mind'. That gives us a great deal of pleasure. Kids love the shows too,” says Sam.

As historians, this new approach to explaining history has made them think about more interesting ways to talk about the past.

“I went to a couple of literary and history festivals and I realized all the historians were doing the same thing, which was standing up at a lectern reading out of their book and talking to slides.I thought, this is ridiculous - surely there is a better way of engaging people with history,” says Sam.

“We are doing something fundamentally new that no one has ever done before. I wanted to change things up.”

James adds that this new approach has affected him profoundly: “We found things out about the very essence of humanity. It has fundamentally helped us understand who we are and how we came to be here,” he says.

Histories of the Unexpected LIVE is at the Wimpole History Festival on June 21 at 5pm. Tickets £12. Box office: wimpolehistoryfestival.com or 01223 357 851.

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