TV

TV historian David Olusoga: 'My family were driven from our home by the National Front'

Television gave him the education his school could not, but David Olusoga's mother was the driving force of his historical ambitions

David Olusoga

David Olusoga. Image: BBC

David Olusoga is a historian, writer and broadcaster who is one of the most respected and authoritative voices on television. He was born in Lagos, Nigeria, in January 1970 to a Nigerian father and British mother.

As a young boy, he emigrated to the UK with his mother and siblings and grew up on a council estate in Gateshead. He experienced racism first-hand during his formative years, his family requiring police protection and eventually forced to move. Olusoga later studied the history of slavery at the University of Liverpool.

David Olusoga presents long-running BBC history series A House Through Time and wrote and presented the awardwinning BBC series Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners. He is a professor of public history at the University of Manchester. And in 2019, David Olusoga was awarded an OBE for services to history and community integration. His book Black and British: A Forgotten History was longlisted for the Orwell Prize. 

As his new series Union with David Olusoga – in which he explores the history and origins of the United Kingdom – begins on BBC2, Olusoga spoke to The Big Issue for his Letter to my Younger Self, looking back on his hard time at school, being traumatised by racism and his decision to move into TV.

At 16 the things I loved most were judo and karate, and I was playing lots of basketball. My knee was about to collapse – I didn’t know that at the time – so that was all about to come to an end. But the Leisure Centre in Gateshead transformed my world. It helped me get over my childhood asthma and gave me confidence. My other big passion was history. So in some ways I’m rather unchanged. Physically I was a lot fitter, but I was passionate about history even then. 

I had a hard time in school. I didn’t like my school very much. At 16, I’d just been diagnosed with dyslexia and it was too late to do well in my GCSEs. So I was looking ahead to A levels, but with new knowledge of how to manage a learning difficulty that is very profound in my case. It had been ignored and dismissed by my school. I was only given an appointment with an educational psychologist to shut my mother up.

My report cards were almost a dyslexia diagnosis on the page. Good with words, poor handwriting. Inability to communicate ideas on paper but very capable of discussing them verbally. But I was brought up on a council estate. I was a mixed-race kid. So there’s a ready-made explanation which is: this kid is stupid. It was easier for my school to go with the flow of stereotypes. 

I have nothing but compassion for my younger self. Two years before I was 16, my family had been driven out of our home by the National Front. I’d been through a series of really violent incidents. So when I think about myself at 16 I see a child who has lost his home because of violence and who has very low expectations about what life might offer. I was traumatised.  

I can’t remember how I got through all of that. Because I don’t think I expected life would ever get better or to live in a world that wouldn’t have that level of racism and violence. Had I known my life would get better, that Britain would change as the country undoubtedly has, that might have been welcome news. But I needed that resilience. So I’d be nervous to say anything reassuring to my 16-year-old self because I was embattled. 

I’m shaped by my mother, a product of her incredible resilience, determination and ambition for her children. My mother is remarkable. She fought for her children, for their education, for them to have expectations. I’d love to say I’m an incredible self-invention, but largely I was pushed by my mother. I’m a product of a truly remarkable parent. And as a parent now, bringing up my child with far more material resources, I’m even more in awe of her.  

David Olusoga with others at the BFI London Film Festival
2022: David Olusoga (centre) with Jen Parker-Starbuck, Peter Richardson, Mary Crisp and Adam Ganz at the BFI London Film Festival. Image: Lia Toby/Getty Images for BFI

One of the few tools my mother had to educate her children was the television. I had one wonderful teacher, Mr Faulkner, who I still know and am so grateful to. But my other history teacher was the television. When my mother circled things in the Radio Times for us to watch, it was not a suggestion. So I was first interested in art after watching a series called Artists and Models about French neoclassical art.

I was at the Louvre with my daughter recently, telling her about going at 18 because of the series I watched. So television was a way in which people with very few resources could expand their horizons. I wanted to travel because I’d seen the natural world through David Attenborough. I wanted to study history because Michael Wood made it look cool. Television was a place where ambitions and passions that have been with me the rest of my life were formed.  

The privilege and responsibility of making factual programming on television is something I carry with me. Because I know what it is to sit on a sofa on a council estate and see something so transformative it changes your life. This is a medium that is astonishingly influential, and anyone who works in it needs to be humbled by its power. Television can reach people and give them an interest they didn’t know they had. I’m Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester and the ‘Public’ is really important to me. I want to be part of what history was to me – astonishing stories told on a big scale, taught in a way that makes you care, not just learn. 

At university, I realised what a lot of working-class kids do – which is that they’re as clever as the posh kids

David Olusoga

If you were Black in the 1980s, politics was all around you. We sometimes forget, but when I talk to other people of my generation, it doesn’t take long for us to talk about things like the National Front. There was real violence on the streets. I have the scars on my body of violent attacks from right-wing street thugs. The reality that you could be hospitalised, or worse, was a feature of life for Black people. We mustn’t forget that.  

My mother was able to say that if you work hard, pass your exams and go to university, you can change your life. Because schools were better funded. We had local sports facilities that were council-funded. We could go to university and get grants. So my mother could say something – which I do not think is true now – that routes to social mobility exist and all you’ve got to do is seize them. What I’m really frightened about now is that the equivalent single parent on a council estate in one of the poorest parts of Britain cannot honestly say to their children that those things are true.  

Most children have a small world and mine was particularly small. I didn’t have encounters that more privileged people growing up do, where they meet people doing a range of exciting jobs. So my younger self would be astonished at what I do now. I didn’t know anyone who had written a book. I went to a school where there was no expectation that you would go anywhere or do anything, so the presumption I would go to university came entirely from my mother. And at university, I realised what a lot of working-class kids do – which is that they’re as clever as the posh kids.  

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I made the decision to try to get into television out of ignorance. I didn’t know how much the chips were weighted against me. If I’d known how elitist and upper-middle-class it was, and how little it thought about people from working-class and minority backgrounds, I’m not sure I would have made the same decision. I remember getting Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation out of the library when I was a kid. The idea that I would present the follow-up to that series [in 2018] would have been hard to believe as a teenager. My younger self would be amazed.

I’m interested in people who have been pushed to the margins. I grew up obsessed with the Second World War and began to realise – largely because of my mother – that the stories of Africans, people of my father’s ethnic group, who had been involved in both World Wars were not part of the story I was being taught. Realising there were people whose stories were not being told has been at the centre of what I’ve done with my career.

I want to find the people and stories and forgotten chapters and put them back in the story. I also wanted to make sense of the ethnic groups I come from. I’m half white working class from the north, and fascinated by the history of the North East and my Scottish ancestors as much as I am by Nigeria, the Empire, and my Nigerian ancestors. So there’s always been a genealogy element to my interest in history.

If I could relive one day, it would be the day I met my partner. Because I remember it but only vaguely. And you don’t get the significance at the time. We met at work. And you meet and you have a conversation with someone you’re going to spend the rest of your life with. So I’d like to relive that rather consequential day – because I didn’t know it was so significant at the time.  

David Olusoga delivering a lecture in Amsterdam
2023: David Olusoga delivers the Keti Koti Lecture in Amsterdam. Image: ANP / Alamy Stock Photo

I’d like to have spoken to my father more about his childhood and his life. We weren’t brilliant communicators, but he made huge efforts. So I’d love to have spoken with him more. My father died suddenly – I wish I’d taken the time we had and done more with it, sat down with a Stella, which is the beer of Nigeria, pinned him down and asked more questions. 

I look at the barriers facing young people today and feel extraordinarily fortunate. I was able to sneak through the doors of social mobility that are being slammed shut in the face of young people. The racial violence was certainly worse in the ’70s and ’80s, but universities had grants. There were far-right movements on the street and people painting swastikas on the wall, but you could enter a middle-class profession as a working-class kid and get a job and a mortgage. So in all sorts of ways, things are much harder now despite the fact that in other ways Britain’s a much, much nicer place. 

Union with David Olusoga starts on BBC Two on Monday 2 October at 9pm.

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