Broadcaster and historian Dan Snow tells Joanna Moorhead about living up to his hot reputation, marrying into wealth and his famous dad…
It was a journey I’d been dreading: two and a half hours wedged into a train seat with a wriggly four-year-old. But respite came from an unusual quarter: the historian Dan Snow, then a 20-something on the cusp of his TV career, who took my daughter Catriona under his wing and read books to her all the way from Leeds to King’s Cross. We were travelling together because we were fellow judges of a national museum prize and Catriona, who was on holiday from nursery, had come along for the ride. I knew watching him play with her that Dan would make a wonderful dad. Now, 12 years later, he is precisely that. When we meet for tea in a London café, he tells me all about his own children: eight years ago he married Lady Edwina Grosvenor, daughter of the Duke of Westminster, in a low-key ceremony in Liverpool, and the couple are now parents to Zia, six; Wolf, three, and Orla, two. He recently took the elder two with him on a filming trip to Germany and they loved it. ‘The best thing about having your own TV channel,’ he says, ‘is that you can make your own rules.’
History Hit TV, Dan’s on-demand channel, is his passion – but his children are at the heart of his life. What becomes clear as we chat about his own childhood is that he’s rolling out exactly the same sort of upbringing for his daughters and son that he had himself. Everything he has achieved, he says, is because of his TV presenter dad Peter Snow and his Canadian journalist mum Ann MacMillan. ‘People say to me, you only got to where you are because of your dad. And I reply: “That’s absolutely true but it’s not because my dad phoned the BBC – it was the BBC who made the approach to us both [his first TV programme in 2002, on the Battles of El Alamein, was co-presented with Peter]. It was the time my parents spent with me that made me who I am.” ‘I was a pretty average kid at primary school. My parents lifted me with the support they gave me at home: and whenever we went on holiday or days out we were always doing history-related projects. We made video films about wherever we were: the battlefield at Hastings, Bodiam Castle.
We’d draw maps too: and we’d make diaries. Dad still has them. ‘At the weekends my dad didn’t go to watch football; he took me to museums. So when I ended up at Oxford University and got a double first in history, it wasn’t brilliance – it was all the enthusiasm he had given me.’ A generation on, Dan, 39, is a dad in the mould of his own father. ‘I’m fully involved in my kids’ lives. I do the school run. I lead on the children’s reading. At the moment I’m reading Harry Potter with Zia and we both love it.’ Having children has, he says, prompted him to rethink the role of men in history, and he’s now much more tuned to gender imbalance. ‘I’m very aware of all the stories about men doing exciting things,’ he says. ‘I’m always on the lookout for women doing them, too. So we’ll go to Jane Austen’s house rather than an exhibition on Alfred the Great, for example.’
What’s very positive for his own daughters, says Dan, is that they’re surrounded by wonderful female role models. ‘Both their grandmothers are strong, successful women. Their great-aunt, my aunt Margaret MacMillan, who is also a historian, is this year’s BBC Reith Lecturer [the BBC’s flagship annual lecture series]. And Edwina is a criminal justice advocate who advises the government.’ Lady Edwina’s family is one of the wealthiest in Britain, but instead of being a society It-girl she is one of the country’s prison reformers, having become interested in it when she worked in Kathmandu prison in Nepal during her gap year. She’s passionate about her cause, pouring her funds into a range of empathetic projects from The Clink, a chain of restaurants based in prisons and staffed by prisoners who learn skills that can help them find jobs once they’ve been released, to Pathways, a community regeneration programme in South London with sustainable businesses run by ex-offenders. Could she be the 21st-century’s answer to Elizabeth Fry, the 19th-century prison reformer known as ‘the angel of prisons’ whose campaigning led to an overhaul of prison conditions? It’s entirely possible, agrees Dan enthusiastically.
‘Edwina is bringing about real change and she’s very ambitious with her aims. In another three or four decades, yes, she could be seen as one of the great reformers.’ He met Edwina ten years ago and, as with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, in whose circles they move, it was love at first sight. ‘I’d like to be able to say we met trekking across a desert, but we met at a wedding, which I’m afraid is very predictable. We were sitting next to one another at the reception: the person who did the seating plan set us up. I knew straight away she was the one for me. There was both a physical attraction and a remarkably deep and wonderful companionship. We’re both hugely energised by one another, and by one another’s work. I’m enormously proud of her.’ Edwina certainly seems to be the perfect partner for Dan: they share similar qualities and, like him, she’s driven and passionate about what she believes in. She’s also similarly straightforward and kind: when I was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago, I was by chance working on a story about Edwina’s charity.
When I mentioned what had happened, she told me how her mother had suffered a more aggressive form of breast cancer than mine a decade earlier and made a complete recovery. It was the single best story anyone told me as I lurched through some dark weeks. Edwina’s mother Natalia is still doing fine: but in 2016 her father died suddenly at the age of 64, and her younger brother Hugh inherited the title. Dan says he’s acutely aware of how privileged he is to have married into such a wealthy family: home is a £7 million country house in the New Forest and his favourite pastime is sailing. But wealth, useful though it is, certainly isn’t the bottom line for him. ‘One thing I’ve learnt is that if something looks too good to be true, it probably is,’ he says wryly. ‘And the truth is, we’ve had difficult times. We’ve been through bereavement and Edwina had a late miscarriage.
My career has had its setbacks. So there have been dark times and that’s what makes human beings strive in life; it’s striving to overcome setbacks that makes us keep on trying.’ As he stresses again how lucky he is, it’s very clear he’s not talking about wealth, he’s talking about health and happiness. ‘What I’m truly grateful for is that everyone around me is well. I’m intellectually stimulated, I live comfortably and I’m aware of how fortunate all this makes me.’ After that first TV show with his dad in 2002, the Snow father-and-son team went on to present a series called Battlefield Britain two years later, which won a Bafta. Since then, Dan youth won’t last for ever? Entirely possible, he says. ‘When you realise you won’t always be young, you think, maybe I should get to the gym and make the most of the fitness I still have. In my 20s I was full of beer and curry; I’m a lot more careful with myself now.’
Physically, and in his voice and mannerisms, Dan is the image of his dad, who is famous
for his enthusiastic swingometer predictions on BBC election night programmes. But he
has always been quick to acknowledge the role played by his mother in his life. She certainly helped light the touchpaper of his fascination with history – she is a great-granddaughter of Prime Minister David Lloyd George. But more important than her links to the past is the Canadian heritage she has bestowed on her only son (there are two sisters as well, and Peter also has three children from other relationships). ‘Edwina said she only really understood me when we went to Canada together. It’s the North American openness and enthusiasm: perhaps there’s a slight lack of the social anxiety that often comes with being a Brit. I’ve always felt a bit of an outsider: my mum was different from other mums – she spoke differently, she had a different outlook…and I think I do as well.’
Mobile phone technology, he believes, can revolutionise trips to historic places. ‘I want visitors to be out on a battlefield or in a castle, and learning all about it from their phone, which is their guide,’ he says. He’s made several films that can be used by visitors to locations such as Hastings or Kenilworth Castle, but putting it all together to provide a comprehensive history guide for days out is ‘the next stage’. Dan’s approach to history is personalised: he’s about to do a live tour across Britain in which he’ll share some of his favourite stories from history as well as a few of the highlights of his 16 years on TV. Meanwhile his podcasts and broadcasts from historic hotspots are all about connecting one-to-one with his viewers, with shoutouts and questions answered live. ‘TV is becoming much more personal, a lot freer and bite-sized.’
So much for his predictions for the future of TV; what about his predictions for the future of the planet? What does history teach us about the strange times we live in now? And, come to think of it, are the times we are in really so strange? ‘Interesting point,’ says Dan. ‘The truth is that people often believe they are living through a particularly fascinating time. Having said that, Trump is absolutely extraordinary and Brexit is hugely significant. The rise of China and how we’re responding to technological change are also massively important. Plenty of other periods in history were hugely significant, of course: the 1880s [the core period of the Second Industrial Revolution], the 1910s [the First World War] and the 1960s [which saw an explosion of popular culture and the start of a less rigid society]. Funnily enough, the time I was at school and university – the 1990s – was a bit boring. ‘These days children and young people want to study history because they can see how important it is. What’s going on with Russia, what’s happening in North Korea or what’s behind the rise of the Far Right in Europe? You can’t work out any of these things without understanding history.’
So, given how much Dan knows about the past, what hope does he have for the future? What’s needed right now, he says, are leaders ‘with the maturity to look beyond populist solutions’. If the answer to a difficult problem seems too simple (he’s thinking, for example, of Trump’s Mexican wall), it probably is too simple. ‘We live in complicated times,’ he says. ‘Rejecting complexity is a very dangerous thing to do.’
Favourite item of clothing: My Dirty Velvet T-shirt.
Favourite Music: Hamilton, the soundtrack to the musical. I loved the show.
Dinner-party guests: Elizabeth I, Nelson, Einstein, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Boudicca – Zia is a huge fan!
Favourite children’s book: The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell. It’s about a girl whose courage and charisma changed history.
Favourite film: The Last of the Mohicans. It transports you to the savage fighting on the North American frontier.
Style icon: Indiana Jones. I’ve stolen his man bag.
Favourite place: The bay beside The Needles on the Isle of Wight as the sun is setting.
Dan Snow – An Evening with ‘The History Guy’ begins in Leeds on 2 June, takes in venues from Yeovil to Darlington, and ends on 11 July in Epsom. For tickets visit ticketline.co.uk/dan-snow#tour