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My Word trumps my words


Under a spell
John Julius Norwich Writer
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The other extraordinary story that I have to tell you about one of these programmes I made, it was actually the second one, The Fall of Constantinople, which I mentioned before, to the Turks in 1453, and England's perhaps greatest historian, Sir Steven Runciman, had just written a book on the fall of Constantinople. I knew him slightly and we met and it was a wonderful book and it told me all I needed to know to make this film. So I said, 'Steven, I'm so glad you wrote that book because I'm making this film and, you know, it's really all I need, it's wonderful, it's offering the whole thing on a plate, I'm so grateful.' And he said, 'Where are my royalties?' And I said, 'Well, you know as well as I do historical fact doesn't earn royalties, I mean, it's public property. You can't claim simply on historical facts.' And he sort of grunted and disappeared. And then he always fancied himself, and told everybody, that he was a witch, he cast magic spells.

And we... this film was made and it looked lovely in colour. Did I say it was the first colour documentary they made? The trouble is that nobody, none of my friends had a colour television in those days, so I wanted my friends to see it in colour and so I discovered that the RAC, the Royal Automobile Club, to which at that time I belonged, because I used to go swimming in the evenings after the London Library, had a colour television, a very big one on a sort of stand. And so I hired it for the evening that my programme was due to be shown. It was due to come on at nine o'clock and I invited my friends for eight and gave them a glass of wine and a sausage roll or something, you know, a sandwich, and at five to nine, went to check that the television was working beautifully, which it was, and then at two minutes to nine said, 'Okay, come along in everybody, this film's just going to start.' At that moment, the screen went white and we had a snowstorm, which lasted for the next hour and stopped dead at ten o'clock. So, I mean, after two or three minutes of hopeless, useless twiddling of knobs, I said, 'Look, sorry, this is a disaster, too bad, forget about it, go back, have another drink, I'm terribly sorry, but it's off', which is what happened. And about a fortnight later, my friend, Natalie Brooke, who was another old friend of Steven Runciman, saw him and said, 'Oh, Steven, I haven't seen you for such a long time. I hoped to see you at John Julius's film showing, but you weren't there, and anyway, as it happens, I mean, it was no good because the television refused to work.' And Steven said, 'I know.' That's the only time I've ever had a spell put on me.

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: The Fall of Constantinople, Steven Runciman

Duration: 3 minutes, 26 seconds

Date story recorded: 2017

Date story went live: 03 October 2018