TV presenter and Birmingham University professor Alice Roberts is famous for bringing natural history and archaeology to life on our screens. Now she tells David Johns about her exciting and ground-breaking new venture, Tamed – a 23-date British tour!
Birmingham professor and TV star Alice Roberts is used to being watched by millions of viewers as she explores and explains some of natural history’s greatest wonders and mysteries. So, it’s a little surprising that she admits to being a bit nervous about a date with an audience in Brum later this month.
Prof Roberts, best known for appearing in BBC TV’s Coast, The Incredible Human Journey and Horizon, is coming to her home city as part of her first-ever major tour. Tamed is a 23-date tour which has been nearly two years in the making and which Alice says “started to crystalise first as an exciting idea for a book and then to go with on tour and bring the story to life”.
She describes the book and tour as a “labour of love” which explores archaeology, history and genetics to reveal the amazing stories of the species that became our allies. “From dogs, cattle and horses to wheat, potatoes and apples, finding out how taming these species has left its mark on them – and us,” she adds.
As well as appearing at Birmingham Town Hall this month, Alice is visiting most of the UK’s major cities and towns – including London, Manchester, Bristol and Newcastle – as she brings her unique take on making history exciting, interesting and relevant to as wide an audience as possible.
“I’ve been interested in human origins for ages, and I love how you can bring lots of separate strands of evidence in and weave them together,” Alice explained. “There are clues from fossils, from archaeology – the material culture of the past, from written history, and now from genetics as well. In fact, genetics is transforming our understanding of how humans evolved.
“I started to get interested in tracing the origin of other species, too, and I’d read that apples originated from Ur-orchards in Kazakhstan. When I started to research that a bit more, I uncovered a wonderful story – of the origin of apples with large fruit on the flanks of the Tien Shan mountains, of the spread of apples along the early Silk Roads, of the invention of grafting and the arrival of apples in Britain with the Romans.
“I started to cast the net wider and research lots of other species that seem really familiar to us today, which we’ve domesticated, to find out where they came from – and how we tamed them.”
Alice is an anthropologist and professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham – which means encouraging and promoting dialogue between the university’s researchers and the public, making their work accessible through the likes of outreach and festivals.
She has written seven popular science and archaeology books – her volume about embryology and evolution, The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being, was shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize in 2015. As a broadcaster, she has presented several landmark BBC series including The Incredible Human Journey, Origins of Us, Ice Age Giants and The Celts. She also presents the long-running archaeology series Digging for Britain.
FULL OF SURPRISES
“I love writing but I also love giving talks – and Tamed felt like it could translate into a great lecture. I often give talks at science and literature festivals, but this time I decided to take the book and the talk to go with it on tour. The lecture I’m taking on tour is, of course, different from the book. I won’t just be reading out excerpts. I can bring the stories to life, really delve into the mysteries, the excitement, the surprises. All with stunning images, of course.
“There are questions about how we balance wilderness and wildness with our need for farming and food, about the future of farming and our place on this amazing planet. Writing the book and the talk has certainly changed the way I think about nature, so I think it might have that effect on other people too. People will also have the opportunity to ask me questions. And I want to ask them a few too – especially in my home city of Birmingham! I love doing live shows – and I think the key to all good communication is to harness education and entertainment. Anyone who’s seen me talk before won’t be expecting a dry lecture.”
Alice says that when she’s not working on the tour, she is busier than ever in her ‘regular’ job at Birmingham University. “I’m still working hard to support other academics at the university engage with wider audiences,” she says. “We want to find new and interesting ways of communicating with people and we’ve linked up with a wide range of exciting cultural organisations across the city and region to help do just that – including the wonderful Birmingham Open Media, as well as the Library of Birmingham, Birmingham Museums Trust and Ironbridge.”
Alice is currently looking at inventive ways of showcasing university research – both on campus, in the newly refurbished Lapworth Museum and in the large green space that is soon to be created in the centre of the campus, and in the heart of the city too. “We are also thinking of ways in which people can become more involved with university research, even helping our researchers to come up with the right sorts of questions for 21st century society. And our Arts and Science Festival is going from strength to strength. In 2018, it will run from 12 to 18 March.”
With Digging for Britain due back on our screens in December and a “secret” big new archaeology series for Channel 4 in the pipeline, you might think Alice is feeling pretty proud of her efforts. But no. “Three things have made me very proud this year,” she says. “The graduation of my PhD student Emily Saunders, who did a great piece of research comparing how humans and gorillas move in their natural environments; my little boy starting school and settling in really well; and my wonderful 75-year-old dad abseiled off the top of Southmead Hospital in Bristol, to raise money for prostate cancer research.
“I’d like to still be abseiling and walking up mountains, like him when I’m 75!”