The period drama is more popular, and perhaps more contentious, than ever. Traditionally a staple of British culture and a lucrative export across the world, the last few years have seen a dramatic increase in films and television series representing history onscreen. Once associated with cosy Sunday nights and the possibility of escape from modern life, this genre is increasingly important in how we think and talk about the past.
Sometimes referred to as historical or costume drama, the period drama typically portrays events and people with whom we might already be familiar – although, increasingly, these dramas are looking to introduce lost voices and less familiar perspectives. We have certain expectations of the period drama – of the costuming, the set design, the filming locations and its supposed accuracy. There is often a romance at its heart and, in the case of any good Jane Austen adaptation, a wedding at its conclusion.
But, as the genre continues to reformulate itself and is positioned as a form of public history, what responsibility (if any) do period dramas have to historical accuracy? And are there ways in which historians, curators and critics might engage further?
In an online event at the University of Exeter earlier this month, we put some of these questions to historian and screenwriter Alex Von Tunzelmann, writer and producer Sarah Williams, critic Amanda-Rae Prescott, production designer Grant Montgomery, King’s College London English lecturer Dr Emrys Jones, and the National Museum of Scotland’s research fellow Dr Rosie Waine. Reflected in the conversation was a desire for more stories, told from new perspectives, as well as calls for greater diversity onscreen, behind the camera and in the writing room. Questions of accuracy also led to a discussion around creative interpretation and the period drama’s enduring relationship with the heritage industry.
Time for untold stories?
What are the stories we see onscreen? Who are they for? And, vitally, who gets to tell them? The period drama constantly shifts and reinvents itself depending on the moment in which it is made and the outlook of those making it. The work of historians has long informed portrayals of the past in film and television. To find evidence of this, you need look no further than recent productions like the BBC’s Harlots, based on the non-fiction book The Covent Garden Ladies by Hallie Rubenhold; Netflix’s Bridgerton, whose consultant is eighteenth-century historian Hannah Grieg; and Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, based on the work of Jacqueline Riding and developed in collaboration with her.
In her keynote speech, Alex von Tunzelmann highlighted the inherent similarities shared between historians and creatives in TV and film. Recalling a scene from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark – in which rival French archaeologist René Belloq (Paul Freeman) tells Indy “We’re not so different, you and I”, in reference to their differing approaches to uncovering the past – von Tunzelmann set out the common aims of both academics and filmmakers who might otherwise see their processes and output as oppositional. History – whether its presented onscreen, in a museum or a book – is, at its heart, storytelling.
For writer and producer Sarah Williams (Becoming Jane, The Long Song and Small Island), the period drama is at is best when it blends historical research with emotional resonance. When done well, Williams suggests, this combination can draw audiences in and present them with a version of the past with which they can connect and, indeed, one that challenges their expectations.
Acknowledging this common starting point across both sectors promises exciting rewards. But it also requires a flexible approach to reanimating the past and filling in the ‘gaps’ of history when archives fall short. As successful shows like Starz’s Outlander and Netflix’s Bridgerton have demonstrated, there is currently a particular appetite for adapting historical fiction – a form of creative storytelling that, von Tunzelmann points out, has a less critically-engaged reputation but that, in fact, can serve bold aims in speaking as much to our present moment as to the past. For Emrys Jones, the period drama is not about Sunday night comfort or an exercise in reaffirming established histories. Instead, it brings new opportunities to challenge them, something historians do routinely in their own work.
As divided reactions to Channel 5’s recent Anne Boleyn drama – which cast black actress Jodie Turner-Smith as Henry VIII’s second wife – have demonstrated, period drama can also confront audience expectations of its role in shaping our understanding of the past and the questions we ask of it. “Changing perceptions of period drama,” von Tunzelmann admits, “is like turning a battleship.” For journalist Amanda-Rae Prescott, this form of storytelling is vital as both a form of public history and, to some extent, social activism. The period drama can tell us something of what has gone before but, importantly, it can reveal something more immediate about who we are today – however uncomfortable that might be.
In the modern age of social media, storytellers are increasingly conscious of how film and tv is received by critics and fans alike. According to Prescott, period drama can be a surprisingly personal thing, with many taking to the internet to discuss and debate their favourite (or least favourite) shows. While this may not be a deciding factor when it comes to commissioning new drama, this digital dimension is influencing much of the conversation, particularly in terms of diversity on and off screen.
Period drama and historical accuracy: does it matter?
Creating an authentic-seeming historical world presents many challenges to filmmakers. From incorrect period teacups and anachronistic costuming to more obvious mistakes like the water bottle left in a promotional shot for Downton Abbey or the white car in the background of Braveheart, audiences are quick to spot errors. Historians are often asked during production to advise on such details or, after a show has aired, comment on their validity.
But questions of so-called accuracy can be limiting. Inevitably, the past cannot be fully recreated. For Grant Montgomery (Peaky Blinders, Sanditon, The Crimson Petal and the White), creating a production that makes history tangible for both actors and audiences is important, but there is also room for creativity. Informed by his own historical research as well as the work of historical consultants, Montgomery’s sets often include visual and material elements of a particular period exaggerated to playful effect. He is as much concerned with reflecting character and plot as pinpointing a historical moment. In ITV’s Sanditon, for example, the moody interiors of Lady Denham’s house and that of incestuous siblings Ester and Edward are decorated with oversized murals that gesture to works by real-life artists like Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) and Gothic draftsman and painted Henry Fuseli (1741–1825). In designing the house of Tom Parker (Kris Marshall), champion of the eponymous seaside town, Montgomery included references to the London home of Georgian architect, antiquarian and collector Sir John Soane, today preserved as a museum.
The relationship between period drama and the heritage industry is longstanding. In Britain, country houses – from Chatsworth House (The Duchess, Death Comes to Pemberley) and Lyme Park (Pride and Prejudice) to Castle Howard (Brideshead Revisited, Bridgerton) – are regularly used as filming locations, with institutions like the National Trust afterwards capitalising on such connections through the exhibition of sets and costumes.
However, necessary restrictions in museum spaces, designed to protect delicate historic artefacts, sometimes lead productions to access and even intervene in new ways within heritage spaces. Starz’ globally-successful series Outlander, Dr Rosie Waine notes, has brought renewed attention to historic sites and objects in Scotland. The show filmed an episode at the Highland Folk Museum and, in series two, featured a replica of a silver canteen that belonged to Jacobite figurehead Charles Edward Stuart (1720 –1788) and is now held the National Museum of Scotland’s collection.
And it’s not merely single objects that productions look to reproduce. In 2016, Montgomery created a to-scale replica of the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Yorkshire, for the BBC’s To Walk Invisible. Constructed in a nearby car park, the set included the parsonage itself, as well as the graveyard, lane and school next to it, all of which are familiar landmarks to the thousands of tourists who travel to the real-life site each year.
The legacy of To Walk Invisible within the museum did not end there. Costumes created for Anne (Charlie Murphy) and Emily Brontë (Chloe Pirrie) were placed on display in the parlour. In 2017, the Parsonage exhibition Mansions in the Sky, curated by poet Simon Armitage, featured an installation created by Montgomery that imagined the bedroom of Branwell Brontë. Complete with bed, candles sticks, paintings, sketches and even a replica collar belonging to a childhood dog, the work allowed visitors, in the words of the museum, to step “inside the mind and world of the notorious Brontë brother”.
What, then, is next for period drama? Perhaps, as historians and curators have long advocated through their work, there needs to be a wider understanding that history, even in its most robust iterations, is not a certain thing. It is an interpretation of the past, a point of view, and increasingly the period drama seeks to diversify the perspectives from which we view it.
Historians and curators might inform this change more meaningfully – not, perhaps, through consultation alone but through creative collaboration in the earliest stages of production and critical engagement after a show or film’s release. This involves some creative thinking and risk-taking on both sides, but the possibilities are too tantalising and important to ignore.
Dr Madeleine Pelling is an art historian at the University of York. She specialises in 18th-century Britain and its depictions onscreen. Anthony Delaney is a historian of 18th century gender and sexuality, a PhD researcher at the University of Exeter, and also works as an actor; his screen credits include Fair City, Penny Dreadful, and Harry Wild
MORE: Watch out for a panel discussion about what’s next for period drama, coming soon to the HistoryExtra podcast