I went to Birchfield School, just outside Wolverhampton, and then won a scholarship to Malvern College in Worcestershire. As a boy, I twice appeared in the Bridgnorth town pantomime, launching a theatrical career that reached its nadir with an ignominious performance as Jean Anouilh’s Becket at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1995. My finest hour, however, came on the ITV quiz show Blockbusters in 1992, where I completed one Gold Run before getting cocky and being thrashed in the next round.
In 1993 I went up to Balliol College, Oxford, where I read History and French. I spent a year as a language assistant in the Lycée de L’Empéri, Salon de Provence, and then returned to Oxford to finish my degree. I studied for a Masters in history at the University of St Andrews, and then did a PhD at Jesus College, Cambridge.
I wrote my thesis on the political career of Senator Eugene McCarthy, the Democratic politician who challenged President Johnson in 1968 over the issue of the Vietnam War. This evolved into my first book, which was published in 2004. By this time I had landed an academic job as a lecturer in history at the University of Sheffield, where I was lucky to have very tolerant colleagues and highly entertaining students. After three years, however, I got itchy feet. I had already been given a contract to write a three-volume history of modern Britain, and I was tired of the bureaucratic demands of university life. So I chucked in my job, moved to London and tried my luck as a professional writer.
The first volume of my history of modern Britain, Never Had It So Good, came out a year later. On the back of that, I started writing book reviews for the Telegraph and Sunday Times. For two years I wrote a weekly column on historical subjects for the Evening Standard, and I also had a stint writing a a fortnightly column of whimsical historical counterfactuals for the New Statesman. Since 2006, I’ve written a monthly column for BBC History Magazine, and I have written essays for the Observer, the Telegraph, the Times, Prospect, the Financial Times, and so on. These days my essays appear most frequently in the Daily Mail, where I regularly provoke outraged comments from online readers.
My second book on modern Britain, White Heat, was published in 2006, and a year later Waterstones, marking their 25th anniversary, picked me as one of their 25 Authors for the Future. Since then, I’ve written a third volume on Britain in the early 1970s, State of Emergency, as well as a book on the United States during the Nixon, Ford and Carter years, entitled Mad As Hell. The fourth volume of my British series, Seasons in the Sun, comes out in May 2012.
Although I never had any ambition to be on TV, I’ve developed a sideline as a talking head on BBC Four and Channel Four documentaries, as well as a panellist on BBC2′s Newsnight Review, Radio 3′s Night Waves and Radio 4’s Saturday Review. I was the historical consultant to Radio 4’s series 1968: Day by Day and BBC2’s The British Family and The British At Work. On Radio 4, I’ve presented an edition of the Archive Hour about our obsession with anniversaries; a series called Slapdash Britain on British governance since 1945; and an edition of Archive on 4 about the history of Prime Minister’s Questions. I’ve also just finished writing and recording a major new 15-part series on the history of the Post Office, which will be broadcast in December 2011.
In 2012, I’m the consultant for a new six-part BBC Two drama series, White Heat, written by the Emmy award-winning screenwriter Paula Milne, which uses my books for historical background. It has a fantastic cast, including the likes of Jeremy Northam and Claire Foy, and I can’t wait to see how it looks. Most exciting of all, however, is that in the late spring of 2012, I’ll be appearing on BBC2 as the presenter of a four-part television history of the 1970s, adapted from my books State of Emergency and Seasons in the Sun.
I live in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, with my wife Catherine, a lecturer in American literature. (Perhaps disappointingly, we are not part of the infamous ‘Chipping Norton Set’.) In my spare time, I write yet more book reviews, watch old episodes of Doctor Who and fantasise about Wolverhampton Wanderers winning the FA Cup. It would be an exaggeration to say that I bleed old gold, but I do have a very nice Wolves anorak.