Telegraph obituary: Christopher Lee

Christopher Lee, author of Radio 4’s This Sceptred Isle, the story of Britain from 55 BC to 1900 – obituary

He wrote more than 200 episodes for the series, which became the BBC's best-selling audio book, and was Lord Carrington's biographer

By Telegraph Obituaries

21 February 2021 • 8:00pm

Christopher Lee, who has died aged 79, was a journalist, historian, playwright and novelist, and the official biographer of Lord Carrington; he was best-known as the author of Radio 4’s This Sceptred Isle (1995-6), a compelling history of Britain that became one of the most popular series ever broadcast.

“It is history written in the old style, with a broad narrative sweep complemented by a staggering depth of knowledge,” declared the historian Andrew Roberts. When the series was released on CD and cassette it sold in the hundreds of thousands, becoming the BBC’s best-selling audio book. 

Lee wrote the entire run of more than 200 15-minute episodes, broadcast on weekday mornings over the course of a year and telling the story of Britain from 55 BC to 1900. His wry scripts – he was much influenced by the dry humour of one of his favourite childhood books, Eleanor and Herbert Farjeon’s Kings and Queens – were crisply narrated by Anna Massey.

This Sceptred Isle: The 20th Century (1999) was a follow-up that brought the story up to date on the eve of the millennium. Further programmes on Britain’s most powerful families and the history of the British Empire followed; Lee also wrote books based on each series.

This Sceptred Isle had its critics; the historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto denounced it as “old-fashioned, mythopoeic, technically uninventive, historically unchallenging, intellectually complacent.” In its defence Lee cited the rapturous response he received from the huge numbers of listeners who had previously been put off history by unengaging teaching. “As the author, I’m pleased. As an historian by trade, I’m depressed,” he noted.

Christopher Robin James Lee was born on October 13 1941, the son of James Lee and his wife Winifred (née Robertson); his father came from a Kent fishing family.

He was expelled from Wilmington Grammar School – “Misbehaviour, they said. Something about a pavilion that nearly burned to the ground” – and ran away to sea, sailing the world on a tramp steamer for two years. He came to learn, as he recalled in his memoir Eight Bells and Topmasts (2001), that “the British were not universally venerated”.

He then took a job ashore to support himself while he studied at Woolwich Polytechnic, and went on to read History as a mature student at Goldsmiths College. He worked at the Daily Express before serving as BBC Radio’s defence and foreign affairs correspondent for a decade from 1976.

He then returned to academia, spending five years as Quatercentenary Fellow in Contemporary History at Emmanuel College, Cambridge; in his spare time he became a freelance radio scriptwriter. (“My writing for The Archers was the only thing that impressed them at Emmanuel.”)

After leaving Cambridge Lee wrote dozens of radio plays and series, including the long-running political satire The House, and Our Brave Boys, a sitcom set at the Ministry of Defence starring Fiona Shaw, Martin Jarvis and Peter Capaldi. He also wrote books on cricket and the Royal family (he commentated on the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding for Radio 4), and a series of crime novels about Inspector Leonard, an eccentric detective in Bath.

Lee’s biography of Lord Carrington was delayed for many years as he had agreed to publish only when its subject was dead – “so I will be looking up at him from hell when it comes out”, Carrington told The Sunday Telegraph in 2007 – and in the event Carrington lived on till 2018, dying at 99. The consensus was that Carrington: An Honourable Man was conscientious but lacked flair; “writing without much style about someone to whom style mattered grates,” declared William Waldegrave in the Telegraph.

Lee maintained his Stakhanovite output of books and scripts by working 17-hour days six days a week, in a converted Wesleyan chapel in the garden of his cottage in Dorset. His wife lived in Sussex and was only occasionally permitted to interrupt his schedule: “she came for Christmas and had the grace to go on Boxing Day,” he told one journalist in 2000. Even when he was aboard his restored 32 ft sloop, Lara, he rarely spent more than a few minutes away from his laptop.

Lee served in the Services Intelligence Wing of the Royal Naval Reserve and was CO of the HMS Wildfire unit from 1988 to 1990, receiving a Bar to his Reserve Decoration in 1991. For more than 30 years he was a defence analyst for the British Forces Broadcasting Service.

Christopher Lee married first, in 1969, Christine Adams; they were divorced in 2010 and the following year he married the artist Fiona Graham-Mackay, who illustrated his recent book on Anglo-Indian history, Viceroys. She survives him with the two daughters of his first marriage.

Christopher Lee, born October 13 1941, died February 14 2021

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