Peter Snow: From swingometer to Harrogate History Festival

It should come as no surprise that so many leading figures in current affairs tend to move into history, the latter is only the former reinterpreted at a later date, writes Graham Chalmers.

So it didn’t seem unusual when renowned British television and radio presenter Peter Snow’s name was among the impressive line-up of authors announced for the forthcoming Harrogate History Festival.

Snow’s appearance in a couple of weeks’ time at the Old Swan Hotel coincides with the publication of his latest cracking history yarn.

When Britain Burned Down The White House, published by John Murray, tells the little-known story of when British troops crossed the Atlantic in 1814.

Arriving in Washington to teach the Yanks a lesson when it was a little too late to do so, they did, indeed, proceed to burn down the White House.

It’s a story that simply had to be told, says Peter on the phone line from his home.

“I was astonished when I learned that the same soldiers who triumphed in the Peninsular War against Napoleon had then turned to face America. It’s such an extraordinary story, it’s almost comic opera.”

Still sounding larger than life at the age of 76, Peter’s unbridled enthusiasm threatens to gallop straight through my questions.

He may have hung up his famous ‘swingometer’ nearly a decade ago but simply hearing his voice is to visualise him on General Election nights, those flailing arms pointing this way and that in a theatrical fashion as the votes poured in.

As an undergraduate at Balliol at Oxford University he’d envisaged an even more creative destination for his future.

“When I was young I was vaguely interested in going into the theatre, writing or producing. But I drifted into ITN when I was looking for work. After that, I never looked back. It turned out to be a fantastically exciting career.”

Having done it all at ITN, he switched sides in the 1970s and became the first ‘anchor man’ on Newsnight on BBC 2, an era of Sir Robin Day and Margaret Thatcher.

Despite a troubled spell recently typified by the mess the show got itself into over Jimmy Saville, Peter remains a strong defender of the show, still the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme.

“It was a wonderful breakthrough in British TV at the time, the first time the news of the day has been covered in depth the same day. It’s varied at times but it’s an absolutely essential part of the schedules.”

He’s keen to remind me that the swingometer wasn’t his idea, that its parents were two titans of political analysis - the social scientist David Butler, who came up with the concept, and the late Robert McKenzie, a Canadian-born professor of politics who invented the format for TV.

His career at General Elections started in 1964 and only stopped in 2005. Surely he misses it?

“I do miss it. I thought it was the best job in television.”

So why stop?

“It’s quite an athletic job to deal with the swingometer. You have to do an awful lot of running round the studio. I felt it was time to go.”

It was noticeable that Peter’s son, Dan, the popular TV historian who occasionally works with his father, was a prominent ‘no’ campaigner in the recent vote on Scottish independence.

“As a British historian, Dan was naturally concerned to keep the union together. We’ve so much common history. He’s got Scottish blood in him.

“It was a magnificent campaign by Dan. I was thrilled with the result.”

Peter, himself, has Irish blood, another quintessential ‘Englishman’ whose lineage reflects this island’s many heritages.

Born in Dublin to an Irish mother and an English officer in the British Army, he lived in the Emerald Isle until moving to school in England aged seven.

But why is your work always about battles and military campaigns, I ask him.

As a man who loves the books of Antony Beevor and Max Hastings, this is not a derogatory question.

Peter mentions pointedly mentions a couple of his books which aren’t about armies then reveals he’s already working on a lavish new ‘box book’ with Dan combining history with replica artefacts and mementos.

To be published by Andre Deutsch, its subject will be the battle of Waterloo.

l Peter Snow appears at the Old Swan Hotel on Saturday, October 25 at 9am.