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‘A lot of history is a very, very dark comedy in which people behave quite badly’

The cult podcasters behind The Rest is History visited Dublin recently to record episodes about Ireland’s past with their trademark self-deprecating humour and lightly worn erudition

Historians Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook, co-hosts of The Rest is History podcast. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Historians Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland are preparing to record episodes of their cult podcast in the GPO, when we meet in a Dublin hotel.

Sandbrook, author of respected studies of 20th-century social history, and Holland, acclaimed interpreter of the classical and early Christian worlds, performed in Vicar Street last week, their first live show outside Britain.

Their podcast, The Rest is History, has grown in less than three years to become one of the most popular in the English-speaking world. With subjects ranging from the fall of the Soviet Union to history’s greatest eunuchs, much of its charm derives from the self-deprecating humour and lightly worn erudition of the two presenters.

We never said, let’s make it anti-woke. That would be reductive and actually quite boring

—  Dominic Sandbrook

They’ve been doing these live gigs for a while now. “We did one in London that was like a kind of stand-up routine,” Sandbrook recalls. “The audience were very, very young and they were there to laugh, so everything we said greeted with gusts of laughter.”

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“And we were discussing historiography of the Spanish conquest of the New World,” Holland sighs.

“It was one of the weirdest evenings of my life and one of the most enjoyable,” says Sandbrook.

My uncouth question about how much money they’re making out of all this is gracefully deflected (“We do it for the love”), but‚ with hundreds of millions of streams and tens of thousands of paying subscribers, it’s reasonable to assume they’re doing pretty well out of a medium that neither of them was really aware of a few years ago.

The Rest is History came about because Holland’s brother James was already co-presenting a popular second World War-themed podcast, We Have Ways of Making You Talk.

“He would occasionally mention it to me, and I’d say ‘oh brilliant, well done’, but I’d never listened to it,” says Holland. “We were on holidays together in Cornwall. It was gorgeous weather, and I said let’s go off to the beach. He said, no, I’ve got to do this podcast. Then he explained to me how much money he was making. And I suddenly became slightly more respectful.”

Historians Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland are like Morecambe and Wise with PhDs. Photograph Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

James put Tom in touch with his production company, Goalhanger. “We had a long discussion. Should it be about the ancient world? If not, what should it be about? We ended up thinking we should do the whole sweep of history, which meant that we needed someone to counterbalance my ancient stuff with modern, and Dominic was absolutely the immediate, obvious choice.”

The resulting Morecambe-and-Wise-with-PhDs format, fusing real knowledge with self-deprecating drollery, is key to the success of The Rest is History. The style has been adopted by others, not least sister show The Rest is Politics, hosted by New Labour spindoctor Alastair Campbell and former Tory minister Rory Stewart, which is currently the UK’s most popular podcast. I mention in passing a recent article which criticised Campbell and Stewart and compared them unfavourably to Sandbrook and Holland.

“We’re very familiar with that piece,” says Holland with a mischievous grin. “Yes, I think it’s very important to point that out.”

“We have to admit that The Rest is Politics is the biggest podcast in the UK,” chips in Sandbrook. “The sad thing for them, of course, is they have very little of the global reach that some podcasts do.”

It’s true The Rest is History has amassed a huge fan base in the UK and beyond. After their Dublin gig, Sandbrook and Holland are off to the US to do live shows in Washington DC and New York. The pair have fun playing up their respective personas – Holland the refined connoisseur of antiquity, Sandbrook the little Englander who likes to remind us of his sideline as a columnist for “Britain’s most popular newspaper”, the Daily Mail.

So how did two white English public schoolboys become pin-ups for popular history in an era when much of the energy around examining the past is filtered through a lens of decolonisation, antiracism and the deconstruction of patriarchy? Listening to the show covering subjects such as the legacy of 19th-century imperialism, though, it’s clear they acknowledge those perspectives without accepting them as gospel.

“We never said, let’s make it anti-woke,” says Sandbrook. “That would be reductive and actually quite boring. I think it’s more that we’re both of a ...”

“Sensibility,” offers Holland.

“Yes,” says Sandbrook. “It’s a sensibility which is partly generational. It’s a way of approaching the subject. The one thing that I can always rely on with Tom is that, almost no matter what the subject, he will approach it with absolute boundless, Tiggerish enthusiasm, which is really infectious. We both love history. One of the things that has seeped into academic history is the very opposite of a love of history. There’s a sense of the past that it is shameful, something to be contemplated guiltily or with deep sorrow or that it’s an occasion for gnashing your teeth and rending your garments, which is absolutely not our style.”

Unsurprisingly perhaps, Holland thinks part of the problem with history today is that it’s filling a gap left by the retreat of religion.

“The parables, the stories, the edifying accounts that guide our morality used to come from religion, and now increasingly they don’t,” he says. “But people still have those instincts and so they look to history to provide them with a moral lesson. That doesn’t leave much room for the fact that a lot of history is very darkly funny. Perhaps the most important aspect of why our partnership works is probably that we find similar things kind of funny. A lot of history is a very, very dark comedy in which people behave quite badly, often while thinking that they’re not behaving badly.”

Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland. 'We have loads of enthusiasm,' says Sandbrook. Photograph Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

Humour and religiosity are often at odds because comedy disrupts moral codes and rejects certainties, I suggest.

“I think you’re right,” says Holland. “The tension between ideals and reality is always potentially funny, but also potentially tragic. And history offers scope for recognising both those truths.”

“We’re currently living in a moment which is filled with ideological zeal,” says Sandbrook. “People really feel there’s good and evil, justice is equity, all these kinds of things. But the thing is that people’s morals and assumptions and ethics are entirely contingent. They’re very, very reflective of the age in which they generate.

“The moment in which they become part of telling a story about people in a different age and a different country, is to acknowledge that and recognise that tensions exist between what they believed they were doing and what you may think. I think that’s a necessary act of humility before the immensity of all the previous lives that have gone before our own particular generation.”

Both men have written histories for children. Holland’s The Wolf Girl, the Greeks and the Gods, a retelling of the Persian Wars, has just been published. Sandbrook’s Adventures in Time series includes versions of the stories of Cleopatra, Henry VII and Alexander the Great. While he doesn’t believe in being prescriptive on what history should or should not be taught in schools, he has strong views on how it should be taught.

“Teaching children history as a morally improving story will turn them off, because they find it boring,” he says. “Nobody likes to be lectured. A lot of adults, oddly, take the view that children are unlike us in that they will take hours of morally improving lectures. Actually, what they want is people’s heads being chopped off, ripping yarns, escapes.

“When you say, here’s this character in the past, he’s very funny and he has the most amazing adventures, let me tell you about them, they love that. But if you say, here’s another inspiring story to remind you to be kind, by and large children despise you for that. If you talk to any nine or 10-year-old, they’ll say, ‘oh, God, another morally improving lecture. Like we don’t have enough already’.”

We thought, you know what, I don’t think the audience will applaud us for deciding we’re going to fly over from England and do this to the Irish

—  Dominic Sandbrook

The Rest is History has been careful to include the voices of historians from colonised countries when addressing the consequences of white supremacy and imperialism in Africa and elsewhere. Which brings us to the thorny subject of Ireland. Out of more than 300 shows, why have there been so few about the UK’s closest neighbour? Do I detect some nervousness? Both men acknowledge their Irish listeners have been bombarding them with the same question, although Holland points, in mitigation, to one show on St Patrick.

The days after our meeting, they’ll be in the GPO to record two episodes with historian Paul Rouse on the events that led up to the Easter Rising. “There are some subjects where we think the audience would want us to have an expert,” says Sandbrook. “We thought, you know what, I don’t think the audience will applaud us for deciding we’re going to fly over from England and do this to the Irish. This is one where we want an Irish voice and Irish historian.”

“It’s easier for us to do subjects that we know about,” says Holland. “And I don’t really know about modern Irish history. I’m aware that it’s an incredibly sensitive subject and that everyone in Ireland will know vastly more about it, and that there’s a vast range of opinions on the subject, and me kind of reading two or three books about it is not really going to cut it.”

Is there a shelf life to The Rest is History phenomenon, a moment when Tom and Dominic fall out, or get sick of each other or just run out of stories? Not a chance, says Sandbrook.

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“In the taxi on the way here, we just started talking about topics and for about 45 minutes we were saying, oh, we could do Mary Wollstonecraft, we could do Hiroshima. Let’s do that. Let’s do three episodes on this. So we have loads of enthusiasm. Actually, when we go through the topics like that and we’re talking about the schedule for 2024 even, what are we going to do in the US presidential election, I think, God, I’m really looking forward to this.”

The Rest is History is available on all podcast platforms