Does Historical Accuracy in Period Drama Really Matter?

And the prize for the first ever guest blog post on Hisdoryan goes to the lovely Jess from An Historian About Town! Every once in a while you discover a blogger you just ‘get’ and who seems to be interested in all the same things as you. Jess is one of those bloggers for me. She loves both fashion history and royal history as much as I do – so much so, we are meeting up when she is in the UK next year to visit the Christian Dior exhibition at the V&A. I just can’t wait! Given the similarities between us and our blogs, it is only natural that Jess is the first guest blogger on Hisdoryan (I did a blog post for Jess a few weeks ago – check it out here).

An Historian About Town

I was delighted when Jess said she wanted to write a post all about the perennially controversial topic – does historical accuracy in period drama really matter? Its definitely a toughie. Are you a bit like me – with history so ingrained in the brain that you can’t help spot and be annoyed by inaccuracies, however hard you try not to? Or do you watch period dramas for pure escapism, and to hell with the facts?!

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As an historian, I have quite the love/hate relationship with period dramas. There is so much to love – the entertaining storylines, the gorgeous clothing, the castles and houses that we could only dream of living in. However, creators and writers take more than a few liberties with the past when putting it to screen, and it really makes you wonder, “to what end?”

I have to admit, Reign is one of my favourite television shows. Does it resemble much of Mary, Queen of Scots’ actual life? Not even close, but the costuming and sets are too gorgeous to pass up! (And I will take any part of Mary that I can get.) And The Tudors? I watched every episode as it aired, and periodically do a full re-watch of the whole series. Could you learn much about Henry VIII from it? No, no you could not. These monarchs and courtiers became caricatures of themselves that are barely recognisable if you know their lives (and in most cases, their appearance.)

reign historical accuracy in period drama

My number one question is, why? Mary, Queen of Scots and Henry VIII both led incredibly exciting and interesting lives- far more interesting than you or I will ever lead- and arguably don’t need to be “improved upon”. Do people need to have every 20-30 minutes on screen, or hack hundreds of people to death on screen? Maybe not. And do we need to invent imaginary family members to kill off? Doubtful. What purpose are these changes serving? If you didn’t have gratuitous sex and violence, would viewership drop so drastically? Or would they finally be putting faith in their viewers? (I would actually argue that they would have far more historians tuning in, as I know many who won’t watch period dramas because of these changes.) In short, does historical accuracy in period drama really matter?

My other larger issue with the changes that they make is that in a lot of cases, they make the historical figure in question come off far worse. Anne Boleyn is the perfect example- Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl has led to a lot of people thinking that she actually committed incest with her brother when there is no evidence to support that theory. Yes, in the ideal world, people would watch these television shows and movies and then go off and do their own research, but not everyone is as invested as we are. Is there no responsibility to tell something of the truth as an historian?

the other boleyn girl historical accuracy in period drama

What I would love to see is each show provide a reading list of monographs, collections, and papers that cover the period in question to give viewers a chance to immerse themselves in what actually survives in the historical record. I would also love to see title cards explaining quickly at the end of each episode what happened in reality (instead of typically only at the end of the entire series). As I go through several historical re-watchs (Reign, The Tudors, Victoria, The Borgias, Downton Abbey, etc) I’ve been collecting what I think should be essential readings- what do you think people need to read and watch along with these shows?

And to the people who argue that period dramas are pure escapism, I would say, they may be to you but many people take them as gospel! We don’t need everything dumbed down to the lowest common denominator to be enjoyable, and I have faith that the people who want to learn more would enjoy these changes but those who don’t could simply ignore them!

Are you a big fan of period dramas, or do you change the channel when Dame Maggie Smith appears to question what a weekend is?

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4 Comments

  1. 7th November 2018 / 9:26 am

    Great post – I blame Shakespeare! As an author I feel a responsibility to do what I can to ensure historical accuracy. There is plenty of scope to be creative with the characters of the many servants surrounding historical figures and ‘fill in the gaps’ where the records leave us guessing, as long as readers are made aware of it.

    • Claire
      Author
      7th November 2018 / 6:54 pm

      I also think it kinda depends on what historical period you’re writing about to a certain extent, in that there tend to be less historical sources the further you go back and more historical gaps to fill in and play with

  2. 7th November 2018 / 11:02 pm

    I’m not a fan of period dramas these days, I’m a documentary girl! I think there was a kerfuffle a year or so ago about (possibly) Downton Abbey and one of the historians killed the argument by saying ‘I’m not going to get upset over a jam spoon’!
    Last month I watched the two Hogarth’s Progress plays at the Rose Theatre, Kingston – they were both fab – BUT at the very end of the first play, there was a scene with repeated photos being taken with a mobile phone and a screen display of the selfies taken!!! Obviously anachronistic, it was a little odd, however, overall it didn’t distract from the enjoyable theatre.

  3. 13th November 2018 / 2:56 am

    I do love period dramas and historical fiction. And, I shamefully admit to being a lover of Philippa Gregory novels. (*cringes* can we still be friends?) However, I do always read/watch such things with a grain of salt, knowing that certain details may be twisted to be more entertaining to a modern audience. Very often, I find myself pausing the movie or putting down the book to look up what REALLY happened to the characters (aka, real life people) because I’m pretty doubtful that something I just learned is historically accurate. Once I find what I am looking for, I can go back to enjoying the show/book for what it is–a glorious entertainment piece. :- )

    However, I get pretty upset when it comes to mythology being mixed around. I’ve tried watching, say, THOR, and that horrific movie GODS OF EGYPT, and I only made it about 10 minutes into each because I kept going, “That’s not so-and-so’s father! And that’s not how the myth goes! Those two would NEVER be in cahoots!” or something to that effect. My husband then patiently tries to explain to me that the movie is based on a comic book and not mythology, or that’s it’s just a mishmosh of myths for entertainment value…. But, I will have none of it! And I stop watching. LOL.

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