I am Research Professor of English History in the International Centre for Sports History and Culture (ICSHC), where I am working on two books – one on the origins of modern sport in England, Sport and the English Hero, and the other a history of Primitive Methodism, The People’s Church 1807-1932. Before I came to DMU, I was Professor English History at the University of Leicester, and before that I worked in university adult education at Vaughan College in the city. I joined the ICSHC in 2012.
I was educated at South Shields Grammar Technical School for Boys and at the universities of Sussex and York. I have held visiting fellowships at the universities of Oxford, Dortmund and Yale. In 1992-93 I was a Fulbright Scholar, and in 2005-07 I was a Leverhulme Senior Research Fellow.
I write occasionally for the national press, including for The Guardian, The Independent, Prospect, the Times Higher Education, and The New Statesman. I write regularly for The Literary Review, and pop up every now and again on radio and television, including, most recently, two episodes of From Our Own Correspondent (BBC Radio 4), The Ticket (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), The Life and Death of Methodism (BBC Radio 4), The Verb (BBC Radio 3), Newsnight (BBC2) and Night Waves (BBC Radio 3). In 2011 I was consultant to The South Bank Show on Lee Hall and in 2016 to BBC Radio 4’s series on The North. In 2014 I appeared at the Gateshead Freethinking Festival organized by BBC Radio 3 and in that year generally gave over twenty public lectures on Orwell to literary festivals and societies right across the country ranging from The National Library of Ireland to Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge.
My book Identity of England (Oxford University Press 2003) was Melvyn Bragg and Gordon Burn’s ‘Book of the Year’ in The Observer, and Paul Lay’s ‘Book of the Year’ in BBC History Magazine. Simon Heffer described it as “one of the finest books on this complex and difficult subject it is possible to imagine”. Both J M Roberts in the Oxford Magazine and Paul Lay in History Today thought it was the best book on the subject. Stephen Howe said it was a “great book” in The Independent and Bernard Crick in Politcal Quarterly called it “masterly and profound”. My George Orwell English Rebel (Oxford University Press 2013) has received similar acclaim. It was one of The Independent on Sunday’s ‘Paperbacks of the Year’ (“Colls writes with an offbeat mixture of Isaiah Berlin and Clive James – which is to say like a dream”). Simon Heffer in The Daily Telegraph thought that “If there exists a better book on Orwell I have yet to discover it” – a view reflected by John Gray in The Literary Review (“subtle and original”), A N Wilson in The Spectator (“the most sensible and systematic interpretation of Orwell I have ever read”), David Aaronovich in The New Statesman (“an Orwellian triumph”), Paul Anderson in Tribune (“stunning”} and D J Taylor in The Guardian (“prime ornament of Orwell studies”).