Sanitising the past: should historical drama reflect modern sensibilities?

During the First World War many parents might have beaten their children, and many Brits might have vented anti-German prejudices - but, asks historian Maggie Andrews, would modern audiences want the 'whole truth' in a historical drama?

Young women labour on a farm during the First World War. The radio series Home Front explores life in Britain during the conflict. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

The idea of historical accuracy is something that inevitably comes up in any discussion about period drama, and it was no different in a recent discussion with Maggie Andrews, a professor of cultural history at the University of Worcester and a consultant to BBC Radio 4’s First World War serial drama, Home Front.

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The series, which has been running since the beginning of the centenary commemorations of the 1914-1918 conflict, dramatises the First World War – not in terms of the battlefronts, but through ordinary people’s lives in Britain. Ahead of the next series, which returns on Monday 18 June, Andrews spoke to BBC History Magazine editor Rob Attar on the History Extra podcast.

A consultant to the programme, Andrews advises on precise historical detail and events happening during different moments in the war. “Most people look at the war as a mass, yet of course it was completely different for people in 1914, compared to 1918,” she explains. And while Andrews was conclusive on certain facts that cannot be adjusted within a drama – “you can’t shift dates of battles or whether people have rationing or who’s being conscripted” – she explained that, for Home Front at least, other elements are more flexible.

“I think that it’s very difficult to create the feel of an era, with the attitudes and values and behaviour that people had then, that we will comprehend now. If we recreated the historical accuracy of 1914, I think people would find that very difficult. Some things – the way in which people spoke to each other, to women or to people who were non-English – you wouldn’t want to recreate that on radio nowadays.”

“I know there was an interesting debate early on [in the programme]: during the first months of the war, there was a massive level of anti-German feeling and lots of urban myths about things the Germans had done in Belgium. To recreate all of that would have been quite problematic, because you can’t recreate all of the feelings and the rumours and the way in which they spoke about it, without almost propagating the quite anti-German feeling in this country at this moment.”

There has to be some level of compromise, Andrews believes. “Nobody would have any sympathy for instance, for a father who beat their children, and yet that was absolutely normative. Nobody would have much sympathy for a man who, during an argument, hit his wife, and yet that was fairly common. So I think you have to be careful how you do that, because it’s a different era and they had different values.”

“If people don’t feel sympathy for the characters, they’re not going to go with the story, they’re not going to engage with that history about life on the home front, which they can do through this [programme].”

At a time when conversations about how we edit and digest the past are attracting widespread media attention – historian Dan Snow recently sparked debate after he intentionally told his daughters the falsehood that women flew Spitfires in combat during the Second World War – is there a potential danger that erasing unpalatable attitudes for the sake of entertainment or comfort might lead to them being forgotten?

“I think there is always a problem with that… but you always have to accept that history on television or on the radio, it’s about entertainment. And if it becomes too factual, it becomes totally grim,” she says. And if a drama can reach many more people than would ever pick up a history book, and has the potential to challenge popular understanding of unknown subjects, Andrews believes you have ask the question: “Can you do that by making what’s actually quite difficult history into something that’s also, to some degree, entertaining history?

Where do you stand on the debate? Have your say on our Facebook page or on Twitter @HistoryExtra.

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You can listen to the full interview with Maggie Andrews on the History Extra podcast, available here.