Belfast Telegraph

Jamie Theakston: I hated learning dates of battles

Jamie Theakston admits he's no historian - but that's the point. Keeley Bolger spends a day on location for his new series

By Keeley Bolger

Among the ancient ruins of Petra in Jordan, former Top Of The Pops presenter Jamie Theakston is putting his years of controlling enthusiastic crowds to good use, as he orchestrates a perfect to-camera piece amid the hubbub of the lost city.

But it's not the Spice Girls, or Oasis, of Theakston's TOTP heyday causing the furore; it's the archaeological wonder that is this Unesco World Heritage Site and the thought of the priceless ancient treasure that lies below the rose-coloured buildings that's causing excitement among the horde.

With streams of tour groups buzzing around the crew and a scuffle over a camel threatening to break out among the local sellers, the pressure is on Theakston to nail his piece - and pronto.

"He's 'one shot Jamie'," says the managing director of the production company, who is making the second series of Forbidden History.

And it seems he's only half-joking, as Theakston delivers his lines to the lens in front of the swelling audience, who've been asked to hold tight for two minutes.

"Cut" is called and Theakston then gives a bemused smile of thanks to the crowd, before strolling over to the director Bruce, who tells him about a woman from New Zealand who lived among the locals in Petra's caves, and even laid on an afternoon tea for the Queen.

"Amazing," says Theakston, taking in the imposing old caves and buildings.

Jordan isn't the only incredible place the 43-year-old, who cut his presenting teeth on Saturday morning kids' show Live & Kicking before moving on to The O-Zone in the mid-Nineties, will visit for the six-part series. He'll also head to New York to pursue the true Holy Grail, and Greece to examine the power of the Oracle.

And while he sounds the part - and looks the part, in his standard issue documentary-presenter navy polo shirt, cream trousers and tidy beard - Theakston admits he was hoping to conjure up a rather more authentic aura.

"In my head, I'm hoping my sons have this image of me like TE Lawrence on horseback, as opposed to driving around in a minivan across the desert," he says, laughing.

But with just two days a week on location, the horses will have to wait.

A DJ, with a daily slot on Heart Breakfast with Emma Bunton, a prolific provider of TV voice-overs and with "endless amounts of stuff" to fill his day, Theakston initially had cold feet about taking on the role. Home is London, with his wife Sophie Siegle and their sons, six-year-old Sidney and Kit, five.

"With my day job, I don't have a chance to do TV any more," he says, as we gulp down brews during a brief break between scenes.

"When Henry from the production company approached me and said, 'Would you like to do a history show?', I was like, 'I can't do it', because he said it would involve a week in Petra, a week in Jerusalem."

But after some re-jigging, Theakston and Henry "worked around the dates" and made it happen.

"We have this ridiculous schedule," he explains. "I'll do my radio show, get on a motorbike, fly out for few hours, film the programme, get back home, sleep, and then back in to work on Monday."

With time a precious commodity, it isn't long before he's hoisted over by Henry again.

"Because of this man," he teases, "I haven't seen my children for about a month and a half."

Doubtless Theakston finds the separation tough, but he insists he is finding his own ways of staying in touch. "One of the things that helps is modern technology," says the 6ft 4in broadcaster, as we park up in the desert surrounding Petra.

"My son took a picture of his spelling test and sent it to me. He got 8/8, so I can sort of keep in touch with what they're doing, but it's quite a challenge."

Another challenge is getting his head around the history.

If he's "brutally honest", as a schoolboy growing up in Sussex, he found "learning the lineage of Tudor and Stuart dynasties and dates of battles boring and dull".

So why, 30 years later, is this man with "no real history credentials" spending his weekends learning more about our past?

"Well, I think my lack of history credentials was one of the reasons why I was asked to do it in the first place," he says.

"It's not like it's a Simon Schama academic-authored documentary. They didn't want an academic take on these stories. They wanted someone who didn't know too much about them beforehand, so I would ask the same questions a viewer would."

With the directors beckoning him to re-shoot a drive through the desert, Theakston can't stop for long. But he does think he understands why these stories make such fascinating TV - even for non-history buffs like himself.

"History is the backdrop, the story is the narrative and the investigation is what makes it so compelling," he says.

"You've got quite a potent group with those three things, and I think that's what people like to watch."

Forbidden History, Yesterday channel, Wednesday, 9pm

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