“Teaching the lessons of the past through the music of the future”

By Richard Simpson

From our earliest days on the long winding path to becoming historians we are taught adulterating source materials is an almost sacrilegious offence. But what would happen if we had never been taught this central tenet of our academic discipline?

What would happen if we cut the sources up, reordered them, copied them, and even placed some Krautrockesque guitars, drums and heavy synth over the top? Well, it may just sound and look a little something like this:


That was the band Public Service Broadcasting with their single Spitfire. Wrigglesworth and J. Willgoose, Esq., who make up the band, created their song in the same way any historian might create an article – by trawling through archives in order to gain enough material. What they did when they had the material, however, was evidently very different. This particular song was created using the material from the 1948 film The First of the Few.  Originally a rather trite jingoistic expression of how post-war Britain survived the war, Wrigglesworth and Willgoose have reshaped the images and quotes of the film, as well as adding jarring electronic beat to undercut the film’s explicit tone of pro-British propaganda.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the whole song is around one minute in when actor Leslie Howard, who plays the designer of the Spitfire R.J. Mitchell, explains, ‘It’s a curious sort of bird, a bird that breathes fire and spits out death and destruction’. While paying homage to the plane’s aesthetic ‘bird-like’ beauty, Public Service Broadcasting use the original footage to remind us what the primary value of the Spitfire actually was.

Another of Public Service Broadcasting’s songs uses footage from the 1953 film ‘The Conquest of Everest’, which told the story of the first successful ascent of the world’s tallest mountain by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norway. Just as with Spitfire, Everest sees original film, this time by George Lowe, cut, copied, changed and rechanged, as its length is reduced down from seventy-eight minutes to fit within a four minute song. Yet, nothing much seems to be lost by this aggressive editing. Indeed, the fast past changes of scene mixed with the ever-building background of guitars, keyboards, brass and drums provide a sense that the viewer too is travelling up with Hillary, Norway and their crew. Meredith Edwards’s calm narration allows the viewer a dialogue with which to follow the journey, and his words with which the song finishes, ‘Why should a man climb Everest, because it is there’, provide a much more succinct conclusion than any historian would ever be able to provide.


In a seminar given recently by Willgoose at the University of Cambridge’s Public History Seminar he admitted that he had actually found history dull at school and had given the subject up at fourteen. He later went on to say that the band’s recent album title ‘Inform, Educate, Entertain’ was a little tongue in cheek and their main objective was, of course, to entertain.

Indeed, the end products provided by the band are frequently so adulterated that no historian would ever feel threatened in their positions as informers and educators about the past. But this does not mean to suggest that historians should ignore those in the public limelight who are also using historical sources. For it is bands like Public Service Broadcasting, or authors of historical fiction like Hillary Mantel, which highlight historical materials and ignite interest in people who would usually ignore the subject.

The videos have been reproduced with kind permission of the Public Service Broadcasting.

To find out more details about the band please check out their website at:


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