My first boss: Jessie Childs, British author and historian

·6 min read
Jessie Childs, 45, is an award-winning author, historian and broadcaster.
Jessie Childs has written three books after taking advice from popular historian Alison Weir

Jessie Childs, 45, is an award-winning author, historian and broadcaster. Her first book, Henry VIII’s Last Victim, won the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography, and her second, God’s Traitors, won the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History in 2015.

The Oxford-educated Londoner is on the editorial board of History Today magazine and frequently appears on TV and radio. She is married with two children.

I knew that I wanted to do something with history after university, but wasn't quite sure in what field. Working on historical documentaries was one avenue and it was a CV I sent to one TV production company that set me on the path to where I am happiest today.

I got a first entry job at Atlantic Productions working as a PA under Anthony Geffen, one of the world’s leading filmmakers and producers. He had made a plethora of historical documentaries in the UK and US and it still the hardest job I have ever done to this day.

It’s fair to say that Anthony was a maverick kind of boss and I have total respect for those who work as a PA, especially when you are organising a very busy person.

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My role was also a very interesting sideways entry into TV production. I scheduled and set up meetings and sometimes got to sit in on them. I helped set up a screening in New York and met Liam Neeson, who had narrated the voice-over, which was a highlight. I had to be diplomatic, learn to be discreet if other meetings overran and making friends with PAs of other big executives was great fun.

Even though he demanded a lot from his employees – and I’m sure everyone has a story working at Atlantic Productions, not all of which are printable – Anthony offered opportunities and encouraged people's passions and ambitions. There was never anything stuffy about him. An inspiring, force of nature boss, he had the gift of the gab, a cavalier attitude to match and made things happen, which is always an exciting environment to be in.

He was also a great talent spotter. One of his star directors ended up being BBC4 channel editor. Another employee is now a Radio 4 producer. I saw her recently when I went on Start the Week to talk about my new book. We hadn't seen each other for over 20 years, but it felt like yesterday.

Jessie Childs, right, at author Daisy Dunn's book launch in 2020. Photo: Alice Dunn
Jessie Childs, right, at author Daisy Dunn's book launch in 2020. Photo: Alice Dunn

I would be given tasks like finding an expert on the seven wonders of the world by the end of the day. Often in TV production, experts would be left hanging and I found that an impolite process. I soon realised that there is an urgency in TV to secure someone and then not follow it up and so I would always make sure to phone people back to let them know if they would be booked or not.

During one TV proposal on the Tudors, I went for lunch with the popular historian Alison Weir. Other run-of-the-mill bosses may not have provided opportunities to get out of the office like Anthony did and Alison was so lovely and gave me some great career tips. At university, if you quoted a non-academic historian, there would always be scribbles on my work telling me these weren’t ‘proper historians’. But I started to read more trade books and that set me off on what I really wanted to do.

I get that you have to simplify the message for television, but now I really wanted to explore these subjects in more detail. I left Atlantic after about a year and decided to research what turned out to be my first book, centred on the last person to be executed by Henry VIII. Soon after, there was an advert in a newspaper for the Biographers’ Club Prize for the best uncommissioned proposal by a first-time author. I was a runner-up but I landed an agent, a publisher and an advance and I was away.

Simon Schama has called The Siege of Loyalty House 'extraordinary, thrilling and immersive'
Simon Schama described The Siege of Loyalty House as 'extraordinary, thrilling and immersive'.

The average time to write a history book is around three years but I have written three over 16 years, which is pretty slow. Some manuscripts simply take a long time to decipher and I just love the research and rooting around in archives. I do tend to take far too long on that side but you always think 'if I just read this next letter' or 'if I just turn the page' there will be gold at the end of it. Most of the time there isn’t but ​it's thrilling when you find something.

Some authors write and research chapter by chapter whereas I do all the research first. I also always have the structure of the book in my head all the time to try and make it into a satisfying narrative.

My latest book is about a siege in Hampshire during the English Civil War. In theory it is quite a self-contained story but, the more I researched, the more back stories, characters and links I found. I try to write my books as a microcosm of the bigger picture, so here it was trying to explain the Civil War as a whole through this one story.

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It can become quite an unwieldy beast if you’re not careful and it took me seven years to complete, but I also do TV work, festival talks, book reviews and radio work. There’s really never a dull day.

The 17th century and the Civil War is also a subject which hasn’t been at the centre of the curriculum as perhaps it should be – and I would put out a plea for historical documentary makers to mix up the music a bit.

We all love the Tudors but we also need to look into the Civil War. It is so resonant especially now; it was a time of puritanism, populism, culture wars, climate change, witch hunts, war in Europe, while England’s role in Britain and the world was changing, just as it is today with the Brexit parallels. I don’t think history has ever been more exciting and important as it is now.

The Siege of Loyalty House: A New History of the English Civil War (Bodley Head, £25) is out on May 19

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