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Pulling rank


Filming in Sicily
John Julius Norwich Writer
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I made about a couple of dozen historical documentaries for the BBC. I can't even remember all the subjects now. I remember the first one was on the Normans, which I'd just written my first book about, The Normans in Sicily, and I think that was in 1966 and my agent suggested that I write a little précis of the story and send it to the BBC, which I did, and I heard nothing for quite a long time and thought well, that's that, you know.

And then suddenly one evening, we were having dinner, the telephone rang and the man said, 'My name's Ken Shepheard, I'm from the BBC, we're very interested in your suggestion. Will you come and have lunch with me tomorrow and let's discuss it?' So, we had lunch in Gerard Street and a week later I was in Sicily. I mean, it all happened very quickly. And in those days... I mean, this was very, very primitive television, really, 1966, it was black and white, no colour yet, and, of course, everything was terribly slow because we had to... every day we had to send the rushes off to London and stay put until we got the okay, in case we had to do the whole thing again. So, I mean, you know, the slowness was absolutely appalling and I think the equipment was quite primitive, too. I mean, I know that I had... my microphone had a long lead which went all down my leg and out around about 10 yards into the bushes where the sound recordist was lurking. But still, we made the film. We had a terrible time in the most wonderful place in all Sicily, one of the most wonderful buildings in the world for me, the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, which is covered with the most wonderful Byzantine, very, very high quality Byzantine 12th century mosaics, and with an Arab stalactite roof over a Christian church. I mean, most extraordinary.

John Julius Norwich (1929-2018) was an English popular historian, travel writer and television personality. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer. He is the author of histories of Norman Sicily, the Republic of Venice, the Byzantine Empire and, most recently, 'The Popes: A History'. He also wrote on architecture, music and the history plays of Shakespeare, and presented some thirty historical documentaries on BBC Television.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Sicily, Palermo, Ken Shepheard

Duration: 2 minutes, 22 seconds

Date story recorded: 2017

Date story went live: 03 October 2018