The Rest is History: Scholarship with a light touch

Podcast review: Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook have been topping the charts with their highly entertaining and erudite historical reflections

I am listening to two white men with plummy accents talk to me about history and it may be heavy on the “his” but it’s remarkably easy on the ear.

Tom Holland (historian, radio presenter, writer, Oxford grad and plummy accent number 1) and his co-host Dominic Sandbrook (historian, TV presenter, writer, Oxford grad and plummy accent number 2) are old hands at holding forth, and you can hear it in their wildly successful The Rest Is History. These two can spin a yarn with ease from almost any juncture in history, and know how to enliven the dullest of historical moments with a salacious titbit or dramatic re-enactment – see the falsetto impersonation of the was-she-even-a-queen Lady Jane Grey as she watches her husband Guildford being executed. All this while connecting apparently unconnected events and characters in a way that is consistently entertaining if not always entirely plausible.

Episodes range in scope and substance: there’s plenty of your more traditional “The Trial of Charles I” in the mix but there’s also an entire episode on James Bond, one on the Loch Ness Monster, and some entirely devoted to subjects such as “Drink” or “Childbirth.”

Speaking of which: who knew that the term gossip was originally a name for the midwives of the 17th century, derived from " god’s help”. Not Holland or Sandbrook, turns out, which is why their guests are a necessary reprieve from the holding forth. The likes of celebrated scholar Mary Beard, Rutgers historian Camilla Townsend, and journalist Henry Jeffreys are valuable not just for their expertise, but also for their very presence as a tacit acknowledgment that Holland and Sandbrook don’t know everything.


Still, one can grudgingly admit, they sure know a lot, wearing their scholarship lightly, if a little smugly at times. Their lens is unwaveringly British so the French get thrown under the bus on more than one occasion, and even the Scottish come under fire for their “long tradition of banning things that are fun”.

So how do the Irish fare? You get a sense that these two are treading carefully here. They go a full 136 episodes before even getting to the Irish question, and then squeeze it into a podcast about 1922 and the birth of the modern world. “An Englishman tries to sum up the complexities of Irish politics in the early twenties in about 30 seconds,” says Sandbrook. “What could possibly go wrong?” At a quick clip he then does just that, with an explanation of the Anglo Irish Treaty, the creation of the Free State, and the introduction of “a man called Michael Collins”– perhaps you’ve heard of him?

In the end the two wisely conclude it’s “quite a grim story” and on they go, barrelling through the Middle East next, to the collapse of the Ottoman empire. It’s positively breezy.

That doesn’t seem to have bothered Irish listeners though – The Rest Is History regularly ranks in the top 20 most popular podcasts round these parts, and we’re not alone. Two and a half years in, Holland and Sandbrook have topped charts all over, logged some 300 episodes, and formed a members-only club – how very apropos – which for a monthly fee offers such perks as personalised video messages and a chance to party with the hosts. Then there’s a planned live tour, tens of thousands of social media followers, and more than 50 million downloads and counting. The Rest Is History is written by the victors, after all.

Fiona McCann

Fiona McCann, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer, journalist and cohost of the We Can’t Print This podcast