Adams attended Forest Hill School and the University of Sussex where he was influenced by the lectures of radical philosopher Paul Feyerabend on questions of scientific and historical method. He took an MA in Victorian History at Birkbeck, University of London.
Adams trained as a journalist on the South East London Mercury newspaper where he won the Young Journalist of the Year award in 1978. From 1979 he worked as a freelance news reporter on Fleet Street for various national titles. His break into television came when he was recruited by Tom Bower to work as a researcher on the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Panorama. Adams worked on various investigations, including Called to Account on the mysterious death of Roberto Calvi, which won the Royal Television Society award for international current affairs in 1982.
At the end of 1982, Adams was recruited by Joan Shenton to work with her company Meditel Productions on Kill or Cure?, a series about the pharmaceutical industry and damage caused by prescription drugs for Channel 4. This started a fruitful collaboration with Shenton, and Adams stayed with Meditel to move through the editorial grades to become a series producer and producer/director. In six years working with Meditel, his most successful programme was AIDS: The Unheard Voices for Channel 4’s Dispatches, about the views of leading scientists who questioned whether the cause of AIDS had been correctly identified as HIV. The programme won the Royal Television Society award for Best International Documentary in 1986 and stimulated Adams to write his first book, AIDS: The HIV Myth, which was widely reviewed, receiving strongly positive and negative responses in the national and scientific press.
He later concentrated on history and current affairs programmes, working with Phillip Whitehead at Brook Productions on Dynasty: The Nehru-Gandhi Story for BBC and PBS while writing the book to accompany the series. He later worked with Roger Bolton at Roger Bolton Productions on current affairs and cultural programmes for ITV.
Adams' biography of Tony Benn was first published in 1992, it was updated and reissued with additional chapters to cover the intervening 20 years in 2011. To work on it, Adams had otherwise unparalleled access to the extensive Benn Archive and fifteen million words of manuscript diary.
He has specialised in writing books on nationalists and radicals, with biographies of Emmeline Pankhurst and Gandhi. Women and the Vote: A World History was published in 2014 dealing with how women got the vote in different countries. It was described as ‘impressive in its reach, authoritative in its meticulous research.’
Adams' interest in the literature of the 1890s led him to become a specialist in fin-de-siècle studies, writing a biography of the decadent poet Ernest Dowson, a biography of Kipling and a history of absinthe, as well as many academic journal articles. The Spectator has described him as "an extraordinary polymath".
He frequently contributes reviews and other pieces to national newspapers and magazines. Since 2007 he has contributed a regular history column to the leading genealogy publication Who Do You Think You Are? magazine.
Adams has lived with fellow historian Julie Peakman since 1983. They live in London and on the Greek island of Leros where they have been involved in humanitarian work with refugees.
Adams has been chair of Croydon-based homelessness charity Nightwatch since 1992. He frequently comments on public affairs; he is a critic of corruption in local government and of what he sees as a decline in representative government.2011, Mayor’s London Peace Award
2006, Fellow of the Institute of English, School of Advanced Study, University of London
1997, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society
1987, Royal Television Society Producer/Director - AIDS: The Unheard Voices
1977, British Press Awards Young Journalist of the Year