Thursday 21 October 2010

Research I like. Research I don't like.

I know a bit about Victorian London.

I love it when people get in touch with family history questions, after they've been researching their ancestors, and I can tell them something useful or interesting about Victorian London. I don't charge for doing this - it's just pure fun.

I love it when people pay me to do some research; that's good too. Very good.

What I also get, however, are queries from TV researchers. It doesn't do well to generalise, but, after years of gathering evidence, I can say they are amongst the least welcome emails I receive. Maybe a touch above viagra spam; but at least that's offering a service.

They follow one of two formats, which I can summarise below. The first type is fairly plain:


I am doing some research on [x] for [famous broadcasting company / company producing programme for famous broadcasting company]

Your site is great! It has something about [z]. I know nothing else about [z].

I wonder if you know anything more about [z] or know someone who knows more about [z]?

Tell me what you know.


The second is a more oblique approach.


We are making a programme on [x] for [famous broadcasting company / company producing programme for famous broadcasting company]

Your site is great! You plainly know things about [z] which is mentioned on your site.
We are scouting for experts on [z] for the programme and I'd love to have a chat with you about it. When can we talk?


The second, you may notice, hints at APPEARING ON TELLY. This is meant to instil a fervour of anticipation.

In fact, both types are exactly the same thing; the second approach is just more insidious. They are designed to elicit any knowledge I may have upon a given subject, at no cost whatsoever.

I am sorry to say, that's the truth of it. This post probably makes me sound cynical and grumpy and, quite genuinely, I'm not ... I'm just exasperated.

So this blog is going to be my generic reply:

To inquirers of the first type:

If you are a researcher, and I have specific information readily to hand, on my site, or nestling in my brain (the latter is more unlikely) I will happily direct you to it. I am a generous soul, at heart, and I will not tell you to bugger off, even though I have spent years researching Victorian London for sheer pleasure and you, on the other hand, are being paid for the privilege.

To inquirers of the second type:

Bugger off. I will not 'chat' to you about a subject, whilst you take notes on the other end of the phone. I will not provide detailed information, on the vague hope that you are actually 'compiling a list of experts' who may appear on your programme, with the only payment being 'expenses'; nor do I care if you 'filming next week, so it's really urgent;' or 'there's really no budget for research'.

Now, I generally tell people where to go (no, in a nice way ... eg. archives, museums, databases) but - get this - in maybe five years of such approaches from TV people, I have 
  • been paid once (for appearing on a cable TV show)
  • encountered one researcher who clearly knew their subject
That's not a high strike rate, is it?

I'm all about free information.

My website is free. This blog is free.

But I'm quite content not to be on telly, ok? Just bear that in mind, if you get in touch.


  1. Good for you! It's always so disheartening when someone can't just be honest, but instead acts like you're a complete idiot. As someone who has written to you for help, 1) you are more than generous with time and resources and 2) I can't thank you enough. Thank you for all you do.

  2. My dear fellow, what is this 'television' that you speak of? Is it some kind of rotating picture book?

  3. Like a kinematoscope or theatrograph, reduced in proportion to fit your drawing-room or study. A useful invention, one might imagine.

  4. Oh dear, that doesn't settle well with me. I imagine I would turn most nauseous.

  5. You have my sympathies. Clearly research skills are of little importance to most TV researchers.

    This sounds more like cold-calling or telephone sales.

  6. There's always somebody who wants you to do some work, but doesn't want to pay you for it, and very often they seem to be offended when you refuse. Strange, that.

  7. errr.... im wofking fer telly and if you ansers these questions you cud be on

  8. I recently helped out with Ripley's latest book, they managed to put a picture of me and some of my responses to their questions with someone else's name and some of their pictures. I was not expecting any payment but it would have been nice if they'd allowed me to review the content before they published then at least one of the two of us would have got a proper credit.

    I've had a few enquiries along the lines of:
    "I see you have a website with more than one page of text, could you please answer this question because I can't be bothered to read all those words"