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A witty, rich and surprising history of celebrity by the historical consultant to Horrible Histories
Historian, broadcaster and author Greg Jenner discusses his new publication Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity.
Celebrity, with its neon glow and selfie pout, strikes us as hypermodern.
But the famous and infamous have been thrilling, titillating, and outraging us for much longer than we might realise. Whether it was the scandalous Lord Byron, whose poetry sent female fans into an erotic frenzy; or the cheetah-owning, coffin-sleeping, one-legged French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who launched a violent feud with her former best friend; or Edmund Kean, the dazzling Shakespearean actor whose monstrous ego and terrible alcoholism saw him nearly murdered by his own audience - the list of stars whose careers burned bright before the Age of Television is extensive and thrillingly varied.
Celebrities could be heroes or villains; warriors or murderers; brilliant talents, or fraudsters with a flair for fibbing; trendsetters, wilful provocateurs, or tragic victims marketed as freaks of nature. Some craved fame while others had it forced upon them. A few found fame as small children, some had to wait decades to get their break. But uniting them all is the shared origin point: since the early 1700s, celebrity has been one of the most emphatic driving forces in popular culture; it is a lurid cousin to Ancient Greek ideas of glorious and notorious reputation, and its emergence helped to shape public attitudes to ethics, national identity, religious faith, wealth, sexuality, and gender roles.
In this ambitious history, that spans the Bronze Age to the coming of Hollywood's Golden Age, Greg Jenner assembles a vibrant cast of over 125 actors, singers, dancers, sportspeople, freaks, demigods, ruffians, and more, in search of celebrity's historical roots. He reveals why celebrity burst into life in the early eighteenth century, how it differs to ancient ideas of fame, the techniques through which it was acquired, how it was maintained, the effect it had on public tastes, and the psychological burden stardom could place on those in the glaring limelight. DEAD FAMOUS is a surprising, funny, and fascinating exploration of both a bygone age and how we came to inhabit our modern, fame obsessed society.
Greg Jenner (b.1982) is a British public historian, broadcaster, and author noted for using humour and pop culture to communicate the complexities of the past. He is the author of A MILLION YEARS IN A DAY: A CURIOUS HISTORY OF DAILY LIFE (2015) and the upcoming history of celebrity culture, DEAD FAMOUS: AN UNEXPECTED HISTORY OF CELEBRITY, FROM BRONZE AGE TO SILVER SCREEN (2020).
He is also the Historical Consultant to BBC’s Emmy and multi-BAFTA award-winning comedy sketch-show HORRIBLE HISTORIES, being solely responsible for the factual accuracy of over 1,800 sketches and 120 comedy songs. He also worked on HORRIBLE HISTORIES: THE MOVIE - ROTTEN ROMANS.
As a broadcaster, Greg is the host of the BBC comedy podcast YOU'RE DEAD TO ME! in which comedians and academic historians explore different historical subjects. He is also a regular voice on BBC Radio 4, and was resident historian on the science and history series THE ORIGIN OF STUFF, hosted by Katy Brand. On TV, he co-hosted BBC2's INSIDE VERSAILLES discussion programme for two series, and was one of the expert panellists on BBC2’s THE GREAT HISTORY QUIZ (broadcast on Christmas Eve 2015), joining team captains Lucy Worsley and Dan Snow. In 2019 he wrote and presented a 3 hour radio documentary about historical comedy for BBC Radio 4 Extra called HILARIOUS HISTORIES in which he interviewed Stephen Fry and several other guests. He’s made numerous other appearances on British national radio, TV, podcasts, and has written in numerous newspapers and magazines.
Greg is both a passionate defender and careful critic of the way in which the past is exploited for entertainment. He is an Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway, University of London where he teaches on the Public History MA course. He also teaches occasionally at his alma mater, the University of York, where he studied for 4 years before abandoning plans for a PhD to instead go into the TV industry.
Greg is an avid Twitter user and his handle is @greg_jenner.