Heritage: AJP Taylor the iconic TV history man who supplied a new version of our past
PUBLISHED: 12:00 07 May 2013
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In the latest of our series exploring the lives of people commemorated with blue plaques, Adam Sonin looks at the career of British historian AJP Taylor, who became known to millions through his television lectures.
A gentleman scholar and later dubbed “the people’s historian”, AJP Taylor coined the term “the establishment”.
Sharp-witted and sharp-tongued, he made history entertaining and accessible to millions. He resigned from the British Academy in protest against its “witch-hunt” for the spy Anthony Blunt.
He was a non-conforming radical from northern England, who contradicted Balzac’s description of Lancashire, “the county where women die of love”, by saying, “I think this very unlikely”. He continued: “I have always assumed... that Lancashire women are as brisk and businesslike in love-making as in everything else.”
An appearance on the Michael Parkinson TV chat show, alongside chef Fanny Cradock, made for memorable viewing and he bought Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas a house.
Alan John Percivale Taylor was born on March 25 in Birkdale, Lancashire. AJP was the only surviving child of Percy and Constance Taylor. His parents were well-to-do Edwardian Liberal intellectuals and as a young boy he was precocious, learned, and spoilt. He was educated at Bootham School in York and Oriel College, Oxford.
At school he was a talented pupil with an exceptionally retentive memory, yet not a “swot”.
Naturally left-handed he was forced to write with his right hand but the results were often untidy.
Regardless, Taylor started in the lowest form and raced up through the classes, often coming top. His peers targeted him as the one to beat and their letters home reinforce this. One boy wrote: “I am first in form order with 72 per cent (five per cent above Ta 1).”
His ability was not limited to his studies and Taylor played a word perfect Puck in an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His performance was “generally reckoned to be outstanding” while his portrayal of Maria in Twelfth Night was “never bettered in the experience of one witness”.
In 1924 Taylor went up to Oxford, which at the time was very much the Oxford his contemporary, the novelist Evelyn Waugh, depicted in his works Decline and Fall and Brideshead Revisited.
As an undergraduate Taylor became a devotee of Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse but had little idea of what his future held. He was particularly wary of the advice, “boys who don’t know what they want to do in life...become chartered accountants”, or, as was the case with Betjeman and Waugh, preparatory school teachers. Taylor later commented: “It is surprising that we did not follow Evelyn’s example and walk out to sea with the intention of drowning ourselves.”
Years later, in 1965, Waugh wrote to Taylor expressing thanks for a favourable mention “in a Sunday newspaper” of his Second World War trilogy, Sword of Honour and requested his publisher send a copy. The letter continued: “It occurred to me that it might amuse you to see the whole [trilogy in one volume] if you ever had a period of convalescence.”
Graduating with a first in modern history as a medievalist in 1927, Taylor moved to London to train as a barrister. His parents provided for the “articled clerk” and installed him in “an expensive six-room flat on the edge of Hampstead Heath” with a housekeeper.
Abandoning his intention of becoming a lawyer Taylor travelled to Vienna to read in the Chancellery archives. The result was his first book, The Italian Problem in European Diplomacy, 1847-1849 (1934).
In 1930 he was appointed an assistant lecturer at Manchester University where he met noted historian Sir Lewis Namier who encouraged him to branch out into book reviews and journalism.
By 1931 he married the first of three wives, Margaret Adams.
The marriage ceremony ended abruptly when Taylor was asked to declare his commitment and responded, “no”. He “turned on his heel”, waltzed out of Marylebone Town Hall and sought temporary refuge at the 1917 Club in Soho.
Margaret took a short break in Russia but on her return Taylor tried again and the wedding passed without incident. Once married, they moved to a house in the village of Disley, in Cheshire. Taylor continued to lecture at Manchester University, write reviews for the Manchester Guardian and attend his vegetable patch. The Taylors frequented the cinemas, particularly enjoying the comic films of W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin.
Through friends they were introduced to a 21-year-old Dylan Thomas. He needed a place to stay and resided with them for a month, paying his way by painting the outside of their house.
In 1942 Taylor made his first appearance as a broadcaster on Your Questions Answered for BBC Forces Network and became a political commentator. When he failed to win the Regius Professorship at Oxford he focused on his media career. During the 1950s he appeared on numerous TV discussion programmes becoming one of the first “media dons”. He wrote weekly columns in the popular press, such as the Sunday Pictorial and the Sunday Express and became an active member of CND.
In 1972 Taylor famously appeared on Parkinson alongside restaurant critic and TV chef Cradock.
He was drawn into a discussion on politics and the motivations, rewards and possible corruption associated with the job. Commenting on French politics, he said: “If you look at French politics it’s musical chairs except they never take the chair away, there’s always enough chairs for everybody”.
Number 13 St Mark’s Crescent, Primrose Hill, was Taylor’s London home from 1955 to 1978. The period saw great productivity and success.
The semi-detached villa, which dates from 1851-1862, lies in a conservation area and Taylor’s plaque, erected in 2012, is the third in the street.
Taylor’s grandson Ben Taylor said: “AJP Taylor was not only a brilliant historian but also a role model to his family. His enthusiasm, knowledge and passion for history shone through in his numerous television appearances and, although I only knew him briefly before his death in 1990, I look back on his many achievements with a large sense of pride and feel honoured that he is my grandad.
“I have just completed a masters in history and my brother is a history teacher, so although we may never achieve as much as he did in his lifetime and beyond, a large part of his passion for history lives on through us.”
He had six children from his three marriages and his final years were clouded by Parkinson’s disease. He died at a nursing home in Barnet on September 7, 1990.
His remains were cremated at Golders Green Crematorium on September 17.
Taylor once commented: “History is more than scholarship, more even than research. It is above all a form of understanding, and the general reader will not put an historian in the highest rank unless he has supplied a new version and a new vision.”