Chris Arnot meets the professor who has had to make the leap from the 19th century to current cinema – and DVDs
Jeffrey Richards strikes a match and lights a gas fire that looks at least 50 years old. Above it is a picture of Queen Victoria. “She presides over my mental universe,” says the professor of cultural history at Lancaster University, settling back into a winged armchair of similar vintage to the fire. “When I first came here from Cambridge, a profile in the student newspaper described me as late 19th century – so late that I’d missed it altogether and was forced to live in the 20th. Now I’m condemned to live in the 21st,” he adds wistfully, reeling off a list of aversions to modern gadgetry that includes computers and DVDs. “I’ve had three DVD players in as many months,” he complains. “The video, I had for 20 years and it never went wrong.”
Yet he knows he is going to have to master the new technology of home movie-watching one way or another. It is, after all, a vital tool of his trade. During his 35 years and more at Lancaster, Richards has moved from being essentially a medievalist to being a leading historian of popular culture, film in particular. Having been forced to live in the 20th century, he made himself a nationally renowned expert on one of its major inventions: the cinema. Indeed, he has become something of a “talking head” on Radio 4 with a regular slot on the Film Programme.
During the 90s, he had a video column in the Mail on Sunday and, before that, wrote on the arts pages of the Daily Telegraph until he was ousted by the thoughts of Tony Parsons on rock music.
When Richards was a teenager, he would return from the cinema and write a scrupulous review of whatever he had just seen. “I still do it now,” he admits. “At the last count, I’d filled 158 memo pads. They’re not for publication but they do provide the raw material for my books.”
Thousands of books, including his own not inconsiderable output, are crammed into the modest Victorian terrace near Lancaster station where he has lived alone since 1979. “I don’t think I could fit anyone else in here,” he says. “Only the cellar and bathroom aren’t shelved.”
Books line every surface on the ground floor. Tables and chairs are piled high with them. So, too, is almost every square inch of carpet, with the exception of the area around the television, where there are piles of videos and a few DVDs. Walls long ago disappeared behind rows of dog-eared volumes. Admittedly, there is a space above the gas fire and a narrow gap opposite Victoria’s disapproving gaze, which is occupied by an Aston Villa pennant and a picture of the club’s former captain, Dennis Mortimer, lifting the European Cup in 1982.
Richards dedicated his first book, The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages (476-752), to the Villa team of the late 1970s and sent a copy to their manager, Ron Saunders.
“I had a letter back from his secretary,” the professor recalls, “pointing out that he was currently out of the country. She felt sure Ron would read it with interest on his return,” he adds with a smile. “It’s probably mouldering away somewhere in the club library.”
Young Jeffrey was brought up in the Aston area of inner-city Birmingham and fondly remembers the sun glinting on the silverware when the team brought home the FA Cup on an open-topped bus in 1957. “I was 12 at the time and I used to walk to and from the grammar school up the road.”
His mother ran a draper’s shop and his father was works manager at a company that made electrical plugs. “He was at the same firm for 50 years, so perhaps I’ve inherited my stasis from him,” Richards muses. “I shall have been here 40 years by the time I’m 65.” Not that he appears to have any notion of taking it easy when he reaches that landmark. “I have a hundred more book ideas bursting out of my brain, so the very idea of retirement is a polite fiction. The problem is that I want to know about everything. I’ve never stuck with the same subject for more than 10 years and the university has been very accommodating about my changes of interest. I love Lancaster.”
He was less keen on Cambridge when he arrived there as an undergraduate in 1964. “I found it very incestuous, oppressive and bitchy,” he says. “It was the first year that we grammar-school boys outnumbered the public-school boys at Jesus College. Among some of the dons there was a kind of intellectual gangsterism. They had vendettas and one or two would seek to shaft their rivals by failing the PhD theses of their students.” Jeffrey Richards (BA Hons, first class), winner of the Newling History Prize (1965) , the Jesus College Scholarship (1966) and the Cambridge Classics Faculty Prize (1967), claims to have been a victim.
His doctorate and professorship were acquired many years later. One thing that hasn’t changed since his Cambridge days is his style of dress. “The year after I went up, the new intake of students all wore jeans,” he recalls. “We were the last of the flannels, blazers and sports jackets brigade, and I still wear the same outfits now. I resent wasting time deciding what to wear.”
Draped across the back of another book-laden armchair is the striped tie of the Royal Overseas League, the club where he stays when he’s in London. “It’s just behind the Ritz and it used to be for colonial visitors,” he says. “Now it offers comparatively reasonably priced rooms for provincials like me.”
The central location gives him easy access to the National Film Archive and locations for researching his current book on Sir Henry Irving and Victorian Culture. “In order to grasp the history of silent movies, you have to understand the Victorian theatre from which they grew,” says Richards, who is keen to stress the difference between cultural historians, like himself, and lecturers in cultural studies. “They tend to be concerned only with contemporary culture,” he stresses. “So they study a film in isolation, whereas the historian wants to know when it was made, why it was made, who it was made for and what the audience made of it.”
He is gratified to know that cinema is now studied as a matter of course in most universities. “When I started in 1990, I was only the second professor of cultural history in Britain after Sir Christopher Frayling of the Royal College of Art – a dear friend of mine who studied spaghetti westerns in the face of widespread scorn from scholars.”
Cinema may be a comparatively modern art form, but Richards would argue that it continues to throw up issues about the nature of society, some of which are centuries old. Al Pacino’s portrayal of the Merchant of Venice, for instance, has resurrected the debate on Shakespeare and anti-semitism that occasioned a lively discussion in the public prints of the late 1870s. “John Ruskin accused Irving of playing Shylock too sympathetically,” explains Richards, who has a vested interest in both parties. While his book on Irving is currently with the publishers, he has just received a research grant of £179,000 to study Ruskin and the theatre with two colleagues. “One of the things we’ve discovered is that he went to several pantos every year and once tried to persuade Thomas Carlyle to go with him,” the professor grins. “I love the idea of this great 19th-century guru sitting through all that knock-about stuff.”
Ruskin must have felt rather like Richards himself when he went to see the latest Harry Potter film. “I was wedged in next to three hugely fat women, all munching popcorn,” he says, disgustedly. “It’s the same when I go to the Regal in Lancaster. Half the audience are eating and the other half are sending text messages.”
He really will have to sort out that DVD player.
Name: Professor Jeffrey Richards
Job : professor of cultural history, Lancaster University. Also chairman of Lancaster’s Ruskin programme management committee
Before that: student at Jesus College, Cambridge
Interests : cinema, Victorian literature and postcards
Likes : Aston Villa FC, railways, 19th-century British music
Dislikes : computers, DVDs, aeroplanes, misplaced apostrophes
Single: with no children
· Sir Henry Irving and Victorian Culture will be published later this year