The biggest question in the period drama industry is, can we lie about history? Can we deviate from the historical fact in order to make a better show?

One man’s opinion

Historian Dan Jones wrote an article this week, about his work as historical consultant for channel 5’s new three-part drama Anne Boleyn. I’ll reflect upon this interesting new show in another blog post. For now, though, I want to talk about what Jones wrote.

I think Jones is a brilliant historian and TV presenter, and I was very pleased to see he’d been hired to guide this new Boleyn drama through the choppy waters of 16th-century authenticity. But in this article, he said something that surprised me:

My main rule – in fact, my only rule – when advising historical dramas is this: it’s fine to get the history wrong, so long as you know why you’re doing it.

Dan Jones

This is a neat little rule, and I agree with it to an extent. The huge problem with Jones’ rule, though, is that it fails to consider the legitimacy of the ‘why’. Jones seems to advocate that a conscious deviation from history is justifiable by dint of being conscious, not accidental. But is it? Are there not good and bad reasons to depart from historical fact? Jones continues:

If the history seems lumpy or misshapen, [dramatists] have the right to kick it into shape, to sand down the rough edges, to mould it.

Dan Jones

Hmm. My first query is, can factual truth be “misshapen”? Is truth not the ‘correct’ shape by default, so to speak, and deviation from truth a twisting of that shape? We’re diving into murky philosophical waters here, so I’ll leave that question with you for now. But I find the assertion that dramatists “have the right” willy-nilly to alter history that “seems lumpy” troubling.

So what’s the solution?

Actually, I have far more in common with Jones’ position than I’m letting on. Humans are story-telling creatures, and the purpose of drama is to tell a good story. But here’s the kicker; here’s where Jones just hasn’t gone deep enough: drama, however fictional, must tell a truth. Note I said ‘a’ truth, not ‘the’ truth.

My favourite book is Lord of the Rings. It is not a factual story, and yet it is full of truth. Truth about friendship, about pain and struggle, love and hope.

The job of historical drama is to use the factual past to tell a modern truth.

If the facts of the past seem “lumpy” or “misshapen” it’s usually because either (a) we don’t correctly understand them, or (b) they tell a truth to which we no longer relate. Often both.

So here is my own infuriatingly and splendidly paradoxical rule for advising on historical drama:

the only reason to depart from fact is to tell truth.

Peter Wagstaff

Historical fact is never misshapen or lumpy, but certainly it can be difficult to render on screen. A completely ‘accurate’ filming of the story of Anne Boleyn may not be the best way for us to really see into the life and soul of Anne Boleyn. In fact, I’m sure it’s not.

In my recent work on Becoming Elizabeth, we deviated from factual accuracy all the time. We would play around with time and space constantly, moving historical characters to places they were not, at times they were somewhere else. Why? Because it better enabled us to open a window into that character’s world.

To shine a light on the truth of a character, sometimes you need to bring them out from beneath the murky shade of historical fact. This (and for me, only this) is the “why” that justifies Jones’ rule. With this in mind, I think his rule is a good one.

Interested in how we make decisions about historical content? Read my recent post
The Golden Rule of Historical Authenticity

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