My life in history: Justin Pollard, historical consultant
In the fourth instalment of History Revealed's 'My life in history' series, Justin Pollard talks about his career as a historical consultant...
How did you become a historical consultant?
After studying archaeology at Cambridge, I assumed that I would become an academic, but then I realised that I didn’t want to become an expert on one area of a subject, but rather know a little about a lot of subjects. Initially, I became a TV documentary researcher, which gave me the chance to learn how to research programmes, write scripts, shoot and edit. Having worked on documentary shows such as Time Team, I then got my ‘break’ into the film world when Working Title Films asked me to act as a consultant on the 1998 film Elizabeth. Working with Michael Hirst, I got to see how a really first-rate drama writer puts historical fiction together, and from that point I was sure that this was what I wanted to do.
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What does the role involve?
The work often starts before a script has even been written. I spend a lot of time these days writing ‘bibles’ – documents outlining how a show will actually work. With a project like [the History Channel series] Vikings, the first job was to find a story to tell. I’d previously written a biography of Alfred the Great that told the story of the semi-legendary Ragnar Lothbrok and his descendants, so that seemed like a great place to start. The next job was to storyline the series and create an overall arc, and find the details and vignettes to bring it to life. After that, I briefed the directors and heads of department on the period and answered any questions they had. During shooting I was occasionally present on set, but I was usually back in my study so I could answer any queries that came up. After principal photography had finished, I then worked with the sound team adding in all of the additional dialogue recordings (particularly in other languages), before moving on to work on the launch publicity. I wrote the advertising videos, gave interviews and recorded DVD commentaries.
What has been your favourite tv or film project to work on?
The joy of the job is that every show is different. A huge project like Mary Poppins Returns or Pirates of the Caribbean is a real ‘event’ in itself, and working on a film like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (set during the Holocaust) makes you realise that what you do really matters. However, my favourite has to be Vikings, because having written about these shadowy characters for so long, I could then go and meet them. It’s every historian’s dream!
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What are the best and worst parts of your job?
The best part of the job is bringing characters and places back to life. Walking onto the set of Agora in Malta, where we’d rebuilt the middle of ancient Alexandria, it was extraordinary to think that I was the first historian to walk these (albeit reconstructed) streets for over a thousand years. Similarly, getting to meet Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I, coaching Lord Attenborough on Tudor etiquette and helping Sir John Gielgud with his Latin (which he told me he hadn’t done since 1914!) were also unforgettable moments. On the downside, there is absolutely no job security, and you rely on word of mouth (and a good agent) to find out what’s happening. As such, it’s necessary to have a ‘Plan B’. Some historical consultants are full-time academics, whereas I write books and magazine columns and give talks, among other things.
How much research do you typically need to do?
When I started in TV, work on a documentary series typically began with three months in the British Library just reading and taking notes. That initial work is now usually done online in a matter of weeks. I tend to start with primary sources – not because they are necessarily the most accurate, but because they feature the small details that make a show feel authentic and contain stories unique to the era that no writer, no matter how good, could come up with. After that, it’s library work for anything that I can’t get online, followed by museum visits and – most importantly of all – talking to academics, curators and custodians. I use specialists all the time, as only they have the details I need. I couldn’t do without them.
I take a practical view (I hope). The past cannot be forensically reconstructed – we don’t have the data, and we could never escape our modern mindset to fully understand it, even if it were possible. What we hope to do in historical filmmaking is to tell stories set in other times and places that resonate with modern audiences. Historical drama says as much about the time we are currently living in as it does about the time we are writing about – and that is, I think, what history really is.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t have any responsibilities. I hope to make shows feel authentic – to increase the audience’s immersion in the time and place, and to help them empathise. I also hope to pose questions for them about these past stories that make them think about the present. The audiences I meet don’t have any problem with the idea that historical fiction is fiction, and they understand the limitations of filmmaking.
However, they do expect that if they’re told something happened, then it happened. We all make mistakes, and we must hold our hands up to them. Future generations will probably look at our films and laugh at them, just as we do when watching the work of previous generations – and that’s just good history.
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This article was first published in the August 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed
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