‘I uncovered Danny Dyer’s royal heritage’
Presenter of Channel 5’s Inside the Tower of London, Tracy Borman is joint chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces which manages Hampton Court Palace, the Tower of London and Kensington Palace, among others.
The 51-year-old is also chief executive of the Heritage Education Trust, which encourages children to visit and learn from historic properties, and chancellor of Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln.
She has written several acclaimed non-fiction titles, including Elizabeth’s Women and Thomas Cromwell. She is also an historical novelist. She lives in Surrey with her husband, Tom, and her daughter.
Did you have a good financial start in life?
My parents were working class. My dad was a painter and decorator; my mum a secretary at Lincoln Hospital. My older sister and I were brought up in a little village outside Lincoln. We were raised with a keen awareness of the value of money and encouraged to earn our own cash. I was 13 when I started a paper round. I was paid £1.48 to deliver 100 newspapers every Thursday after school.
I had lots of jobs, but my most memorable was dressing up as a Victorian jailer, showing visitors around the prison chapel at Lincoln Castle. I carried a sinister-looking truncheon and a large bunch of keys. I had fun locking visitors in a cell.
Did this spark your love of history?
It helped, but it had already been ignited by Mrs Jones, my history teacher. She had a real passion for her subject and brought the portraits of the Tudors on her walls to life, investing them with real human emotions.
How did you fund your PhD?
After completing a history degree and an MA in historical research at the University of Hull, I applied for a graduate teaching assistantship which funded my PhD in history. Teaching first-year undergrads confirmed my belief that teaching wasn’t for me. They are the toughest crowd you can imagine. My first seminar was supposed to last an hour. I managed 15 minutes.
Have you ever struggled to pay the bills?
After seven years at Hull, I decided to move to London to get whatever heritage job I could. I was lucky because my best friend was living in London with her auntie, who had a spare room. I would never have been able to afford living in London otherwise.
I signed on with a temping agency, then, after a few months, got a low-ranking admin job with English Heritage. Later, I moved on to the Heritage Lottery Fund. Again, I was in the right place but I wasn’t doing the right job. I remember one colleague snidely remarking that my PhD had obviously been worth it while I was making the tea one morning. I never had any money left at the end of the month.
What was your career breakthrough?
After 18 months, I got a job at the National Archives in Kew as an events and exhibitions manager. On my first day I was sent to the safe-room where they stored the most treasured items in their collection. I was like a kid in a sweet shop, surrounded by priceless documents like Shakespeare’s will and telegrams from the Titanic.
What was the financial turning point in your career?
I successfully applied for my second job at English Heritage as head of events. A big part of my role was overseeing showpiece events like History in Action, which involved 3,000 re-enactors taking part in set-piece battles. The Sunday Times Magazine ran a feature about me under the strapline, ‘This woman is in charge of the largest private army in the country’.
After two years, I was made a director. One of my responsibilities was working on the Blue Plaques Panel, chaired by Loyd Grossman, who was enormous fun. Stephen Fry was on the panel. Most members never read the 50 or so reports on the people proposed. He read every word.
Any perks of the job?
I was married in the Tower of London. The ceremony took place in the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula. A who’s who of Tudor England is buried there – from Anne Boleyn to Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell – all rivals at the Tudor court. For a Tudor historian like me it was a dream come true.
How did you break into publishing?
While I was at the National Archives I invited Alison Weir, Britain’s best-selling female historian, to give a talk. I told her I longed to write a book and she helped me develop a proposal, then introduced me to her agent who secured my first publishing deal with Penguin Random House.
My breakthrough came with my second book, Elizabeth’s Women, which became book of the week on Radio 4. It’s a sort of Holy Grail if you can find a new angle on the Tudors because they’re so well trodden. Rather than obsessing about whether Elizabeth I really was the Virgin Queen, I looked at the women who had influenced her, such as her mother Anne Boleyn. The book boosted my profile and I started getting calls from television companies wanting me to be a talking head on documentaries.
What has been your best-selling book?
My biography of Thomas Cromwell, published in 2015. It was timed to coincide with the BBC dramatisation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and captured the zeitgeist. I’m obsessed with Cromwell. Even my dog’s named after him.
Is TV well paid?
No, if I’m invited on news channels to comment, say, on a royal birth, I’m lucky to get paid at all. Similarly, I present Inside The Tower of London as part of my job at Historic Royal Palaces. You do TV for the profile and, you hope, the knock-on effect on your books.
What has been your most memorable TV moment?
Breaking the news to EastEnders actor Danny Dyer that he was a direct descendant of Thomas Cromwell on the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?. He particularly loved it when I revealed that Cromwell was made Earl of Essex. That was gold dust for Dyer, being an Essex boy.
Tracy Borman’s latest theatre tour, How To Be A Good Monarch: 1,000 Years of Kings and Queens, runs from April 17 until May 25; tracyborman.co.uk/theatre. Her latest book, Anne Boleyn & Elizabeth I: The Mother and Daughter Who Changed History, is out on May 18 (Hodder & Stoughton, £25).