Over the past few days, two think-pieces have urged filmmakers to recognise the responsibility they have to the truth when creating historical drama. The first, written by Peggy Noonan for the Wall Street Journal, warned producers that it “is wrong in an age of lies to add to their sum total”. She argued that The Crown’s “cheap historical mindlessness” had led to a number of characters being misrepresented.
The second piece, written by Sonia Sodha for The Guardian, also focused on The Crown and argued much the same. Of particular concern to Sodha was the fact that the interaction between the Queen and Jackie Kennedy had been overplayed. Both writers asked that film producers take more care because, as Sodha put it, “…in this era of fake news, creators of dramas such as The Crown have more of a responsibility to the truth than they seem to realise.”
These are noble thoughts, but they overlook something crucial. What the seemingly endless debate about historical drama repeatedly misses is that, for all their authenticity, historical dramas will always be fiction. It feels like stating the obvious, but it is as true of Shakespeare’s Richard III as it is of Tom Hardy’s Taboo.
Of course, there should always be room to discuss the real history behind the drama and counteract any (usually many) historical inaccuracies – I do this frequently and it is an important opportunity for historians to get their work “out there” and engage the public in the past. This critiquing can often be gloriously fierce, such as the assertion that Downton Abbey was “cultural necrophilia” or the argument that Dunkirk was “a Brexiteer costume fantasy”. It can also serve to question why some dramas get commissioned and others don’t; why some topics are covered, but others aren’t; and why creative licence is used in some instances, but not others. It is also particularly important when popular culture is hijacked for political ends.
But there is a line between discussing and highlighting the real history and dictating how creatives should do historical drama. It is a line that, unless part of the production or brought on as a consultant, I do not think we should cross. However real they might seem, to hold fictional stories to ransom by expecting unattainable and often subjective historical standards is a disservice to everyone.
For a start, how do we differentiate between the various forms of historical drama? There are literary adaptions such as War and Peace and The Miniaturist that follow fictional families caught up in the events of a real places and times. There are depictions of real people such as those in The Crown and Victoria. There are dramas that play with time such as Doctor Who and Timeless. And there are dramas loosely based on real historical characters and/or original research such as Jamestown, Harlots and Alias Grace. Then there’s the question of emphasis: what is important when it comes to authenticity? If historians and critics were to dictate the terms, how far would we allow filmmakers to stretch historical truth?
Go back further than 400 years, for example, and most of us would likely need subtitles to understand spoken English – do we want this? Complaints were made about the candlelit Wolf Hall being too dark, but would we want our films even darker? Perhaps we should insist on casting entirely new actors for every role so as not to confuse viewers? There is authentic and then there is nonsense – but the problem is, one person’s authentic is another person’s nonsense. The way I feel about a zip being on show during The White Queen will be wholly different to the way a costume historian might feel. Similarly, few will share my mild frustration at Charles II being portrayed as a despot in New Worlds.
Noonan and Sodha might feel particularly irked at the misrepresentation of big historical characters in The Crown, but what about the lesser known people and lesser known features of historical drama – the décor, the costumes, the sounds, the dialogue?
This is why we must allow filmmakers the freedom to create fiction as they see fit. Many do it exceedingly well. Jamestown, Gunpowder, Harlots and Taboo have all done something new with the drama and moved the historical conversation on in some way or another and Timeless reminds us that history is merely the sum total of a collection of decisions.
This is not about fake history and truth, this is about good fiction and bad fiction and about historians having space to counter inaccuracies and offer the “real” history. It is also about filmmakers not being offended or surprised when this happens. As L P Hartley wrote, “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”. (Un)fortunately for us, it is a country we can never visit so let’s stop pretending our flat screen TVs can take us there. Until time machines exist, absolute truth in historical drama is not just an oxymoron, it is an impossibility.