"Today has been pure pleasure!" says Andrew Roberts, contentedly, settling back on a sofa in the drawing-room of his Knightsbridge flat and preparing to give his first-ever interview.
Right behind the historian, journalist and broadcaster are row upon row of books, many of them 18th and 19th-century volumes. On the walls are portraits and mementoes of the great men about whom he has written: Napoleon, Wellington, Lord Salisbury and the like. There are signed photos of his modern idols, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. I can also see a large oil portrait of Roberts himself, looming over the desk at which he works.
He is a small, boyish figure, far younger in appearance and manner than his age, 40. His honey-coloured corduroy trousers are slightly too short, as if he is growing out of them and has yet to be bought a bigger pair. His blue jumper and pink shirt cover a plump little tummy. His face is unlined and rosy-cheeked, topped by a high forehead and swept-back blond hair.
advertisementQuite soon, Roberts will pour us both a glass of champagne. But for now, he is looking back over the events of the previous night, when he gave a party to celebrate his 40th birthday last month and the publication of his latest book, Hitler and Churchill: Secrets of Leadership, a pithy and entertaining tie-in with a BBC2 series of the same name.
Roberts is about to join David Starkey, Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson on the list of television's top historians, a group now rivalling chefs and gardeners as the nation's favourite presenters. When I suggest that he could be history's answer to Jamie Oliver, he hoots with laughter before replying, "Wouldn't that be Niall Ferguson?"
Roberts regards Ferguson with affection, respect and a keen sense of competition. He is well aware that Ferguson is two years his junior. He knows his television ratings - 2.2 million viewers per episode of Empire - to the nearest decimal point. Now Roberts, too, has a chance to shine. So he had every reason to celebrate.
"It was a lovely party," he says, his accent exactly what you would expect of a prosperous, public-school educated high Tory. "I like giving parties, but I like having given parties even more. I love the next day, after the party, opening presents, getting calls. There's just a nice afterglow."
Roberts' publisher has supplied me with the party's guest-list. It contains one princess (Michael of Kent), a duchess, nine earls and countesses, four marquises and marchionesses, 43 lords and ladies, among them Baroness Thatcher, five Hons and seven MPs. There are also assorted Gettys, Agnellis, Rothschilds and Goldsmiths, as well as Imran and Jemima Khan.
This is, by any standards, an impressive turn-out. And it is typical of Roberts that he is both able to attract such a glittering array and so happy to proclaim just how glittering it was. He exudes a sense of gusto, of enterprise, of unabashed ambition, of joyous self-promotion (he had 70 commemorative birthday medals struck for his closest friends and family), which makes him almost as much of a Victorian character as any of the bearded figures gazing down from his drawing-room walls.
This applies to his personal life, as much as to his professional one. Roberts has always been very, very interested in women. He has even been described as "priapic" by gossip columnists.
He married, had two children, Henry and Cassia (five and three) and is now divorced. The events surrounding his recent divorce are the only subject upon which he does not speak with disarming frankness. His present relationship with Leonie Frieda, a 46-year-old Swedish historian (who was formerly married to the pop producer Nigel Frieda, with whom she had two children), is quite another matter.
"I was a very active bachelor," says Roberts. "But now I am completely settled with the woman of my dreams. So I'm completely un-priapic now."
He carries on, sounding less like an eminent historian than a gushing extract from Hello!: "Leonie is absolutely everything I've ever wanted in a woman. She's just finished a book on Catherine de Medici, which is out in the autumn. She's beautiful. She's the funniest woman I've ever met. I'm besotted. I'm hugging myself with glee."
Leonie, dressed in a policewoman's uniform, is the first picture one sees on walking into Roberts' flat (she was a model, rather than a copper, when the shot was taken). Holiday snaps of her, looking ravishingly Scandinavian, sit on a table next to photos of Roberts' children. She appears, too, in Roberts' personal website, Andrew-Roberts.net, which is a fascinating window into its creator's soul, if only for the exuberance with which it trumpets its subject's achievement.
If you're going to have a website, it's a vehicle for boasting," says Roberts, straightforwardly. "My girlfriend tells me the boasting is totally unnecessary now, and I simply don't need to do it any longer, because I have significant achievements.
"I've won the Woolfson Prize for History. I'm a Fellow of the Royal Society for Literature. So I don't need to boast . . . but gosh," Roberts sighs, despairingly, "it's so difficult not to do. I don't know why . . ."
A little while later, he returns to the subject. "You've got to be driven by something, to do all those hours of work. And for me it's showing off: 'Look at me!' "
So, just who is this self-confessed attention-seeker? Roberts was born in 1963, the eldest son of a prosperous Surrey businessman, who inherited the Job's Dairy milk business. This he sold to Unilever in 1987, at the very top of the market. But, to the continuing glee of those who wish to mock Roberts, the other source of the family's fortune was a number of franchises for Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants.
He gets up from the sofa and leads me across the room to a coffee-table. There he points to a picture of his parents standing on either side of Colonel Sanders himself, complete with the white suit, white beard and twinkling eyes familiar from all those buckets of KFC battered bird.
"I'm very proud of every way my father has made his money, because he's a fantastic businessman," says Roberts, who is still close to his parents and siblings. "We're not quite the nouveaux riches that the gossip columnists like to say. I had a lovely, comfortable, happy, middle-class upbringing."
Roberts was sent to school at Cranleigh. "I was an absolutely beautiful child," he says without a trace of irony, and he clearly charmed his teachers. "My history teacher when I was nine was called Christopher Perry. He made me fall in love with the subject.
"It seemed to connect all the things I liked: story-telling, personality, battles, wars, assassinations and death. I was never much one for turnpikes and cloth-manufacturing and all that. No. There had to be smiting."
He still has a drawing, done by Mr Perry, called "The Andrew Roberts History Machine". It consists of a small boy surrounded by arrows to which are attached captions such as, "Mine of useless information", or "Knob for auto switch-off during science subjects".
At 13, Roberts went up to Cranleigh's senior school and was immediately cast as the title character in the school play, Charlie's Aunt. His performance was a sensation. "That was a massive experience for me," he says, wistfully. "The Surrey Advertiser's headline was 'New boy hit as maiden aunt'."
The new boy was not, however, a hit with his fellow pupils. "I was horrifically bullied," Roberts recalls. "Maybe because I was a hubristic little tosser," he adds, trying to make light of what must have been a painful period.
"I was strapped into a laundry basket and pushed down the stairs. Then they locked me into a clothes cupboard and pretended the school was on fire. It was absolutely terrifying."
For succour he turned, in swift succession, to Trotskyism, Thatcherism (which he discovered in 1978, aged 15), and then alcohol. Although he eventully achieved three As in his A-levels, Roberts was thrown out of Cranleigh for repeatedly getting drunk and carrying out wild pranks, such as climbing up the school chapel. Off he went to a Cambridge crammer to prepare for his Oxbridge entrance exam.
Every morning, he would sign in at the crammer, then go straight off to The Eagle, a famous Cambridge pub. He would drink pints of beer solidly through till closing time at 3pm, spend the next couple of hours asleep on an empty shelf at the city library, then return for more drinking at 5.30.
Eventually, his mother intervened. She summoned Roberts home, took him on a guided tour of Surrey University, where he was appalled by the drab, modern mundanity of the campus, and gave him a simple choice. "She told me, 'Andrew. If you get a scholarship or an exhibition to Cambridge, I will give you o5,000. Anything else, and you'll go to Surrey.' "
So Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, it was. There he spent three years studying history, chairing the Cambridge University Conservative Association and leading demonstrations against the miners' strike (heaving sighs of relief that there were so many police around to protect him from the beefy miners).
On graduating in 1985, Roberts went to work for the merchant bankers Robert Fleming. It was not a success. "I was just crap," he says, cheerily. "I was functionally innumerate. After two-and-three-quarter years there, I still couldn't read a balance sheet. All my investments were rubbish. The only time I ever made any money, it was by insider dealing."
He left and decided to become a spy. On the very day that he was accepted by MI6, he was offered an advance of o3,000 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson to write a biography of that Tory arch-appeaser of the 1930s, Lord Halifax, a subject suggested by a friend of Roberts' who was also a literary agent. And so his dazzling career as an historian began.
Roberts spent the next three years on the book, interviewing more than 100 influential, elderly men and women who had known Halifax. He was in heaven. "I'm a complete gerontophile," he confesses. "I get on with people who are 20, 30, 50 years older, more than with my own generation.
"I feel a powerful sense of inferiority when I meet people who had anything to do with the War. I almost despise myself for missing it. The greatest cataclysm in world history, and I was born too late!"
He was still working on Halifax in 1990, when Mrs Thatcher resigned. When Roberts heard the news, he burst into tears, and dashed off to Downing Street to give the departing Prime Minister a consoling bunch of flowers. Since then, Baroness Thatcher has become one of the closest of his many old friends.
"As a person, she's very different from her public persona," he insists. "She listens when you talk to her and she has a great sense of humour. There's a modesty to her that people simply haven't given her credit for.
"They all think that she thinks she knows it all. She doesn't. And she'll very often say the absolute opposite of what you expect. At a dinner party the other day, for example, she was praising [the Liberal economist John Maynard] Keynes to the skies."
By the time The Holy Fox: A Life of Lord Halifax was published in 1991, Roberts was short of money. His family may be prosperous, but he has to pay his own way. Although he does not say so, the evidence of his recent change of address, from a house in Chelsea to a top-floor flat in Knightsbridge, suggests that he has no more profited from his divorce than any other former husband.
Now, however, he trembles on the brink of stardom. The more the British education system abandons the conventional teaching of history, the greater the public thirst for historical narrative becomes. "People have been short-changed at school," says Roberts. "History should have all the power of drama, with the added advantage of being true, and acted out by real people, flesh and blood."
The BBC, he is pleased to report, has not forced him to dumb down when discussing Hitler and Churchill. But it has asked him to lose a little weight and modernise his wardrobe.
"On the show I wear a very natty Italian suit and a tie made by one of these . . . what are they called? You know, who's that famous, expensive Italian tie-maker?" Roberts ponders the mysteries of fashion for an instant, then his eyes light up: "Armani! Courtesy of this programme, I now have two Armani suits upstairs. They're feeding the moths right now!"
He will soon begin work on the official biography of Henry Kissinger, a project that will combine thumping financial remuneration with the equally gratifying task of meeting and interviewing virtually every important American over the age of 50. In the meantime, he prepares for such fame as a BBC2 series can provide.
"I was once on the actual Clapham omnibus," Roberts says, "and the man sitting next to me said, 'Were you on the TV last night?' I said, 'Yes,' beaming and thrilled to be recognised. The man tapped my knee and said, 'I thought you talked a load of crap.' "
As Andrew Roberts completes the anecdote, he bursts out laughing and pours us both another hearty slug of champagne.