Dr Sam Willis is one of the country’s foremost historians. In recent years, he has become a familiar figure on the small screen and in bookshops, thanks to his enthusiasm for a huge array of periods and events in our nation’s past. But over the coming months, he will be collaborating with academics at Plymouth University and working closely with students on the BA (Hons) History course.
“History is a changing field and the career possibilities at the end of a history degree are expanding all the time,” says Sam, a Visiting Research Fellow at the University. “The public appetite has never been greater, whether it be through TV and radio, social media and books, and it is immensely exciting for me to be able to share my knowledge of those fields with our students. It will hopefully give them some food for thought as to what they might achieve.”
Sam has previously worked with masters students on projects around public history. From September, he will be replicating that for undergraduate students, while working alongside James Daybell, Professor of Early Modern British History, on a series of podcasts titled Histories of the Unexpected.
A passionate historian from an early age, Sam completed a PhD in Naval History, and then an MA in Maritime Archaeology. After leaving university, he worked on the Hornblower TV series and on Channel 4’s award-winning film Shackleton.
But his first presenting role came in 2012, with Nelson’s Caribbean Hell Hole, a film for BBC4 about a mass sailors’ graveyard on a beach in Antigua. The following summer, he was part of a team that recreated the 1869 John Wesley Powell expedition – the first rowing of the Grand Canyon – with the programme documenting it, Operation Grand Canyon, broadcast on BBC2 in January 2014.
He has since presented a succession of series for BBC4, including Shipwrecks: Britain’s Sunken History, Castles: Britain’s Fortified History, and Britain’s Outlaws: Highwaymen, Pirates & Rogues. And his most recent project The Silk Road, which charted the history of the world’s first global superhighway, being broadcast in May 2016.
Sam already has a number of television projects in the offing, including a series on the history of weapons for the BBC, and another about the maritime silk road for National Geographic.
“When I was at university, the only television historian was Simon Sharma and I never really thought about it as a possibility,” says Sam. “But over the past decade, the media landscape has changed and opened up so many opportunities. BBC4 has been amazing in that regard, but then you have channels on YouTube that present history in a unique way and have developed huge followings. It is becoming an amazing area of entrepreneurship.”
“When you are studying history at university it is all about specialising, and proving you can think critically and process detail in a certain way. But it is also about thinking of opportunities to share your knowledge and enthusiasm for a particular subject, and the possibilities for doing that are almost endless. I hope to help students think about what they might achieve in that regard.”
Professor Daybell said students would undoubtedly benefit from working with someone of Sam’s profile and experience, adding:
“This will be a great opportunity for Plymouth University undergraduate history students, as well as our masters students, to work alongside one of the country’s leading historians and television presenters. Not only will our students benefit from his expertise and enthusiasm for history, but also they will gain an invaluable insight into public history, and the role that their degree will have in their future careers.”