Laura Rawlinson, Lion TV

Prof Clark in his authentic medieval habit.

Exeter academic features in living history series

BBC history series Tudor Monastery Farm gives viewers an insight into life more than 500 years ago and the show wouldn’t have been possible without University of Exeter historian Prof James Clarke.

Prof Clark was a consultant to the programme and appears throughout the series – in an authentic medieval monk habit.

Prof Clark’s research is historical, but focused on religious matters – which was vital to the series.

He explained: “The series was a collaboration between the history and religious affairs departments of the BBC. My research helped steer a course between these co-funders – it was a good bridge between them.”

His research also informed Tudor Monastery Farm’s content.

Prof Clark said: “It’s built around a succession of set pieces about activities in the Tudor period.

“My research provided the agenda of activities the presenters explored. I told the producers in ‘this show we must look at the wool industry, in the next the iron industry’ and so on.”

Prof Clarke also had a hand in scripting the show’s narration.

He said: “As with any documentary, it’s only as good as the voice-over commentary. I script-edited the commentary as, with historical research behind me, I was in a position to explain to the non-expert viewer what they were seeing. It was also valuable for the producers and the commissioning departments as a means of fact-checking.

 “Doing this kind of work helps you put your research in context and see the bigger picture.”

Prof Clark believes he was contacted because he is working on a book about the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry the Eighth.

He explained: “TV producers and directors triangulate – for programmes they make a few calls and pursue researchers whose names come up more than once.”

Prof Clark is no stranger to the genre and has appeared in TV documentaries since 2004. He feels appearing on the small screen provides a great opportunity to engage with the public and build communication skills.

He explained: “You do need the capacity to edit yourself to speak to non-expert audiences with complete clarity.

“Television has been a much better public engagement tool than I imagined. Particularly for the humanities, a really important dimension of impact is school education and there are so many points of contact the Tudors have with children, so it shows our research is reaching out to the public.”

Prof Clark has had research-related opportunities to work with museums, archives, libraries and heritage organisations arising from his television appearances.

He said: “The evidence that television provides that you can explain a subject to a wider audience is exactly what these non-academic organisations are looking for.”

However, for all the benefits of working on the series, Prof Clark would have preferred more information before filming began: “It wasn’t until the day I showed up they said they wanted to dress me as a monk!

“But for academics in any field – even if you’re worried about being asked to do something silly – the benefits vastly outweigh the disadvantages.”