Meet the researcher: Mike Royden (Gareth Malone's episode)

By Guest, 16 September 2015 - 2:51pm

Gareth Malone with researcher Mike Royden in his 2015 episode of Who Do You Think You Are?

In an amazing Who Do You Think You Are? episode, BAFTA-winning choirmaster Gareth Malone discovered the story of his 4x great grandfather Dan Lowery, assisted by Mike Royden (pictured above), who specialises in the history of Liverpool.

We spoke to Mike about his experiences of starring in the programme, which revealed how Lowery went from dyer to publican, singer, election candidate and – eventually – theatre owner.

What interested you the most about Gareth Malone's family history?

It was intriguing, given Gareth’s background, to find that he had an ancestor who was a performer and singer in the music halls. However, I found it more interesting that he played such a fascinating role in local politics – and against all odds. He was up against “a sure thing bet”: a minor aristocrat parachuted into a safe Tory seat. Again, an unusual situation given that this was a total working class dockside area, with a completely different voting criteria in comparison with what would happen today.

The Tories were viewed as paternal and the guiding hand, even in such a deprived area, which also featured the squalor of court housing and thousands living in cellars. Yet the Tories regularly won the seat. To stand as an independent, a music hall singer, and – God forbid – working class, was not taken seriously by the press or the opposing parties.

What was it like being in front of the camera?

It was good fun. I have done quite a few programmes over the last few years, such as the Kim Cattrall episode of WDYTYA? and Heir Hunters, plus I was doing a piece for the Liverpool Blitz Cities episode with Ricky Tomlinson a couple of weeks later, so I am used to how it works. But it is interesting to see how a programme is put together; lots of close up shots, different angles and trying to put the particular into a broader context.

Attempting to remember what you have said already only a few moments earlier is not as easy as it sounds. You don’t want to let anyone down and you hope to include all the factual information that the scene requires. The director might say, "Can we just do that once more?" and you will feel hopeless, but then he will say "... the light has just dropped" or "... that passing van was too loud" and you suddenly don’t feel so bad.

It has actually given me a great deal of help and insight as I have been making history films for Learnerverse, an educational website, for the last couple of years.

How common was it for people to move between such diverse professions as Dan Lowery did? 

Unheard of. This was totally unique. I have seen plenty of examples of the rise of working class orators and protesters in the fight for representation and rights, but this was a very unusual career path. I suppose he also saw it as another way of performing in public – not in a flippant way, but to give him the confidence that he could actually do it.

What might have motivated Lowrey to stand for election as he did?

He was intent on representing the working man as "one of them", and he clearly felt that the future for the working class in that part of Liverpool should see radical change and be represented by someone who lived in the ward. Not someone who would breeze in from his privileged ivory tower, waft through the streets on election day and go straight to his club where he would smoke his cigars and drink the night away with others of the same class.

In fact, the campaign saw its height when a placard was posted on a handcart and, to quote the journalist reporting on the hustings, “... which about a score of young lads, the very tagrag and bobtail of the streets – the gutter children – had 'requisitioned' somewhere or other, and some pushing, some pulling, some riding in the democratic vehicle, they hauled it up and down in the mud of Park Lane, shouting, uproariously and enjoying themselves, to their heart’s content.”

It’s brilliant stuff and conjures up all sorts of images of the noise and chaos on the streets at election time.

Was it normal for press coverage about elections, as you examined with Gareth, to be so snobby and disparaging about candidates not from the upper classes?

Yes, I would say so. This was a time of change in the working class fight for representation at trade union level, their freedom to gather and universal suffrage. Any threat to the established order was looked upon as "absurd" by the local and national press.

There was one journal that stood out in Liverpool at the time – The Porcupine – a kind of Private Eye of its day, poking fun at any establishment figure or issue that needed exposing or taking down a peg, but regular journalism was usually hostile to the working class voice and did not take it seriously.

Mike Royden was talking to Zaki Dogliani

Gareth Malone episode summary
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Alan Crosby: The Only Way is (Rural) Essex
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