In a new series, we look at the YouTube legacy of the great, the good and the infamous, starting with the fascinating Mitfords.

The fickleness of fame is well-known and, for many who have had their moment in the limelight – whether to shine or in infamy – its capriciousness is almost factored in. Even if it isn’t anticipated by the stars themselves, it certainly is by the public, and by television and newspaper executives. In the 21st-century, the idea of fleeting fame is, in many senses, more pronounced, thanks to endless rounds of reality TV series churning out people who are the talk of gossip columns one minute, and frequently forgotten by the start of the next series.

Fame is, of course, nothing new. Every age has its luminaries, some more enduring than others. But while we will never experience what made, say, Lillie Langtry or David Garrick so compelling to their contemporaries, the dawn of film means that generations from now will be able to look upon on many 20th-century and all 21-st century figures of note and observe something of who they were. To that end, this is the first in a series of regular round-ups of ‘best bits’ – to use a well-worn reality TV trope – of extraordinary lives.

And where better to start than with the compelling Mitford sisters, who rose to prominence, sometimes scandalously, in the 1930s. The daughters of Lord and Lady Redesdale, they were possessed of a famously acerbic wit; an innate eccentricity, perhaps in part for not having ever been to school; and a set of extreme political standpoints. They were caricatured by Ben Macintyre in The Times as: ‘Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur’.



Indeed, to read more on the sisters, books abound and there is no better place to start than with Laura Thompson’s ‘Take Six Girls’. Or, to get the whole story from the horse’s mouth, do read Nancy’s perfect and only lightly fictionalised account of their lives in hr novel, The Pursuit of Love. Like so many before us, we cannot get enough of the details of their lives, from their days of licking the pews in church to gossiping and learning the facts of life in the ‘hons cupboard’ to their father bellowing to unwanted guests around the table: ‘Do these people have no homes to go to?’

For a brief overview, do check out this History Lists short film. Otherwise, here are just a few bits of footage of the sisters that we find endlessly interesting, whether because they are entertaining, shocking, enlightening or eye-opening. These YouTube clips feel like a portal into a bygone world, slices of history indelibly created for all to view forever.


Nancy Mitford: A Portrait by Her Sisters (Juliann Jebb 1980)





We love the hilariously honest opening words of Nancy’s interview in this documentary: ‘I started writing when I was about 23 because I wanted to make a hundred pounds’. And it feels apposite to begin with her, because as a novelist and the eldest of the Mitford sisters, she is really the portal to the family. Known for her books rather than her extreme political persuasions (in fact, during the war, it has come to light that it was Nancy who gave MI5 the information they needed to keep her sister, Diana Mosley and brother-in-law Oswald, leader of the British Union of Fascists, in jail), she somehow always retained an air of the detached observer. Devastatingly funny, she was apt to say the most extraordinary things with great, and often giggling, flippancy. And, as well as the content of this interview, it is fascinating to hear her speak in an accent so cut glass that it makes The Queen’s clipped tones sound decidedly modern. This documentary is a wonderful way to spend just over an hour.


Deborah Devonshire, The Youngest Mitford Sister, Talks About Her Extraordinary Life





From the oldest to the youngest. Deborah ‘Debo’ Mitford later went onto become The Duchess of Devonshire and chatelaine of one of the most extraordinary houses in the country: Chatsworth. In this clip, she talks about her memoir, ‘Wait For Me’, so called because, as the youngest, she was always in the wake of her wild and witty sisters. Even when installed at Chatsworth, Nancy used to write to her, addressing her letters to: ‘9 Duchess of Devonshire’, the number referencing what she teasingly believed to be Debo’s mental age. And if you enjoy this clip, you may also revel in her chat with the proprietor of The Swan at Swinbrook, a stroll from where she grew up, which is not to be missed for discussion of aforementioned pew licking.


Christopher Hitchens Interviews Jessica Mitford (1988)





Jessica ‘Decca’ Mitford, the second youngest of the sisters, was, in contrast to her Hitler-sympathising sisters Unity and Diana, a communist. Having fled to America with her first husband, Esmond Romilly (who later died in the war), she renounced her privileged upbringing, called her father ‘one of life’s natural fascists’ and penned the now classic memoir, Hons and Rebels. This interview, which took place at New York Public Library, has no video footage, but that does nothing to dampen its brilliance (do stick with the rather long intro).



After all, you get two legends for the price of one: the late, searingly brilliant Christopher Hitchens, a friend of Decca’s, is the interviewer. Take time over this; it’s an hour long and too fantastically funny to skip through. Few interviews delve so hilariously into funereal accoutrements. And few interviewers have had either the opportunity or the genius to say to their subjects: ‘You had once a chance to kill Adolf Hitler, and didn’t take it, didn’t get round to it, as it were. Though I love you dearly, I can never quite forgive you for not having done this. I wonder if you can explain yourself to the audience here. You could have spared us all such trouble.’ Intrigued? Listen and delight in every word.


The Mitford Sisters | Lady Diana Mosley Interview | Oswald Mosley | Good Afternoon





From Communism to Fascism, this cut-down version of a fascinating conversation between Lady Diana Mosley and Mavis Nicholson for Good Afternoon is rather more serious and shocking than some of the preceding footage. The great celebrated beauty of the Mitford clan, Diana was married to Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, and the two of them spent much of the Second World War in Holloway Prison, an experience she found ‘extremely disagreeable’. There are moments of levity, such as when she concedes that her family were something of a ‘savage tribe’, but here, long after the war, she arrestingly maintains that Mosley had all the right answers.



And so too does she talk of her meeting with Hitler. ‘He was a fascinating man. You see, people don’t get from being an out of work painter to being dictator of a very big, powerful, evolved country like Germany unless they’ve got some very special thing within them and, obviously, he had it…. It wasn’t only that he was charming, he was completely different from anyone we had ever met before.’ Asked about the holocaust, she proclaims it inexcusable, and yet counters, ‘The man I knew was somebody of whom one could not believe that,’ before saying that other dictators had been as bad but were not as vilified. Extraordinary and startlingly frank material.


The Girl From Munich – Unity Mitford





There exists no footage of Unity Mitford talking. This is largely on account of the fact that she spent much of her life as an invalid after a suicide attempt following the declaration of war between the two countries she loved: England and Germany. Unity shocked people by not just being a Nazi-sympathiser, but by unabashedly professing her own virulent and violent anti-semitism, being in Hitler’s inner circle and naming him ‘the greatest man of all time.’ And for Hitler’s part, she was ‘a perfect specimen of Aryan womanhood’. After turning a bullet on herself and surviving the attempt, she was brought home from Germany via a hospital in Bern in neutral Switzerland. This film shows their arrival in England on stretcher to much press attention. She was unwell for the rest of her life, which she was allowed to live out at the family home, despite some of her comments – such as when she said, ‘I'm glad to be in England, even if I'm not on your side’ – leading to calls for her to be imprisoned as a traitor.

By Nancy Alsop
December 2020

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