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Hooked on history

Historical drama is big business. Popular interest in films and TV shows set in the past has rocketed in the last two decades, driven in part by big-budget productions like The Tudors, Poldark and Wolf Hall. Recently, streaming services have grabbed the market with wildly successful projects such as The Crown and Bridgerton. Apart from sex and pretty costumes (and pretty people), what do these shows all have in common? One answer is an increasing attention to authenticity (except perhaps The Tudors…). Viewers have come to expect an ever-greater realism from their period film and TV drama, and anything that falls short of this feels ‘plastic’. Making TV feel real is what SceneSpan does, but it begs the question, what do words like ‘authentic’ and ‘real’ actually mean?

Grotesquely awful

Dr David Starkey on The Tudors (BBC)

Head-to-head with the historians

There’s been tension between entertainment and reality ever since the ancient Greeks wrote their plays. This often leads to friction between productions and historians. Kathleen Coleman – Head of Classics at Harvard – famously had her name taken off the credits to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, which she’d been advising, because every attempt she’d made to bring a modicum of authenticity to the production was rebuffed.

In the last three weeks alone, I have watched or worked on three separate shows set in Tudor England which employed the same very fine piece of music (Allegri’s Miserere) which sadly was written some hundred years later (and didn’t make its way to England for a further two hundred years). Until the 19th century, courtiers in every royal palace in Europe would relieve themselves in the corners of palace rooms, yet the lack of excrement lining the Hall of Mirrors in the hit series Versailles was (blissfully) palpable. Clearly ‘truth’ is not being depicted in these shows, yet we lap them up. Why? Is it because we’re not historians so don’t know any better? I don’t think so (and not just because I am an historian).

Image – Jonathan Rhys Meyers, a.k.a. Henry VIII in BBC’s The Tudors.

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“What is truth?” – famous good guy Pontius Pilate

The truth is that words like ‘true’ and ‘authentic’ are tricky. What may be true to you may not be true to me (regardless of whether either of us is factually correct). Ridley Scott included Renaissance Christian churches in his footage of second-century ancient Rome (much to Professor Coleman’s chagrin) because, Scott said, in their heads that’s the image his audience have of ancient Rome. If the churches weren’t there, people wouldn’t recognise it as Rome, and they would be taken out of the drama, rather than helped into it (that was Scott’s excuse and he’s sticking to it). Louis XIV was an absolute monarch, the Sun King, who built the most spectacular palace in the world. Faeces littering the great gallery may have distracted and confused Versaille‘s audience more than it contributed to authenticity. As an historian, I’m prepared to accept the faecal-free palace, but Christianizing pagan Rome is beyond the pale. Clearly there’s a line. But where? And how arbitrary is it?

We need a piece of evidence which proves that women gladiators had sharpened razor blades attached to their nipples. Could you have it by lunchtime?

Gladiator production to the head of classics at Harvard

There’s no easy answer to this. These are the sorts of decisions that film-makers must make. Thankfully, though, greater attention is indeed being paid to historical authenticity, and programme quality is increasing as a result. Directors are listening to their historians, and historians are more amenable to the nuances of storytelling. But it makes you think. Perhaps the important question isn’t ‘how real is what I see on TV?’, but ‘how real do I really want my TV to be?’

Image – highly authentic Roman gladiator, prior to application of razor blades

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