The recent sudden fall from grace of Tudor historian and broadcaster David Starkey over his remarks on the Black Lives Matter campaign recalls to mind another broadcaster of an earlier decade whose detractors also dubbed him ‘ the rudest man in Britain’—Gilbert Harding. This shared reputation comes to mind as we discovered a copy at Jot HQ of the very funny and often wise treatise on good behaviour, Gilbert Harding’s Book of Manners(1956).
The two men had a number of other things in common. Both were from humble backgrounds and both were graduates of Cambridge University. Starkey came from Kendal, where his Quaker father worked as a factory foreman and his mother was once a cotton spinner. Harding was born in Hereford, where his mother and father were the ‘matron’ and ‘master’ of an orphanage in the city. When his father died aged thirty the young Gilbert was sent to a charitable educational institution. In contrast, Starkey, who considered studying science before opting for the humanities, had a somewhat easier path to academic distinction, though he had a breakdown at age 13. Starkey is openly gay, whereas Harding had to hide his sexuality at a time when homosexuality was illegal.
Both men became broadcasters, almost by accident. While teaching at the LSE Starkey, having obtained his Ph D on the household of Henry VIII, became a panel member of BBC Radio’s ‘Moral Maze ‘, which is where he obtained his reputation for plain speaking. By this time Harding had been dead for over twenty years, but it possible that the young Starkey might have been impressed enough by the broadcaster’s irascible performances on ‘What’s My Line ‘in the fifties to have thought about modelling himself on him at some future time. Harding had entered the BBC in his late twenties after short spells as a schoolteacher, policeman and foreign correspondent. Continue reading