Heritage! The Battle for Britain’s Past - A BBC / English Heritage Partnership

Chief Executive, English Heritage

From Kenneth Clark to David Dimbleby, Fred Dibnah to Fiona Bruce, the BBC has memorably celebrated heritage on the small screen. So memorably in fact that it can sometimes feel as if we’ve always loved our ruined abbeys and castles, prehistoric monuments and grand country houses.

Not so. Shakespeare’s home was torn down in 1759 by its owner who was tired of visitors peering through the windows. Can you imagine the uproar such an act would cause today? While in 1847, Berwick Castle was demolished to make way for the East Coast Main Line.  

So our love affair with ancient buildings is relatively new. It was inspired by a revolution that flew in the face of modern progress, one led at different times by socialists, aristocrats and until now, anonymous civil servants.

Starting this Thursday, a new BBC Four series tells the story of that revolution. Heritage! The Battle For Britain’s Past focuses on the pioneers of the past including Victorian archaeologists who fought to save our great prehistoric stone circles and those 1970s campaigners who railed against the demolition of the once loathed St Pancras train station.

This year is a fitting year for such a series. Because 2013 is the centenary of a landmark moment in the protection of heritage: The Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act of 1913.

With the passing of this Act, the State for the very first time stood up and recognised that it had a duty of care towards the physical remains of this nation’s history. The 1913 Ancient Monuments Act created many of the powers still used to protect Britain’s unique legacy of historic buildings and also established Europe’s most ambitious outdoor museum – today’s National Heritage Collection of historic sites and monuments, looked after by English Heritage, CADW and Historic Scotland.

English Heritage’s origins stretch back to this landmark Act and we wanted to mark the centenary in a way that fully captured what was at stake and what has been achieved since then – all the challenges, dilemmas and decisions, setbacks and successes.

Enter the BBC.

A meeting with the Controller of BBC Four, Richard Klein, the series’ Executive Producer, Basil Comely, and the BBC’s Partnerships Manager, Judith Nichol, and Heritage! The Battle For Britain’s Past was born. The series is the result of a partnership between English Heritage and the BBC. The BBC got special access to our experts and archives, while for English Heritage the BBC brings our research alive as only the BBC can and shares it with as large an audience as possible.

The series features familiar names like William Morris, Octavia Hill and John Betjeman but also the unsung heroes who worked quietly behind the scenes, the men (and in those days, they were almost all men) from the Ministry of Works, English Heritage’s predecessor. And it raises important questions as to who decided what did and did not constitute heritage as well as what is worth saving – and losing – today.

Above all, rather fittingly in this English Heritage’s centenary year, Heritage! The Battle For Britain’s Past inspires people to think again about those pieces of the past that surrounds them, why they survive today, and what should be done with them tomorrow. 

Dr Simon Thurley is Chief Executive, English Heritage

Heritage! The Battle for Britain’s Past starts on Thursday 7 March at 9pm on BBC Four.

A series of complementary exhibitions is running throughout the year at Wellington Arch, London W1J 7JZ.


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