Green Book, a historical film about pianist Don Shirley's tour to the racially segregated US Deep South in the 1960s, won Best Film at the 91st Academy Awards, marking the end of a strong year for historical television and film. This year, we’re taking a closer look at the historical films and TV shows that have had the most impact for readers and historians – from Olivia Colman’s performance as ‘forgotten’ Queen Anne in The Favourite to the controversial menstruation scene in Mary Queen of Scots…
So often, historical films and television shows are measured first by a static accuracy-o-meter: would a figure have held a spoon in a certain way; should a character have used a certain phrase; did that event actually happen?
It’s inevitable that historical films based on, or inspired by, real events will mingle genuine details and figures with imagined scenes – and there has been much discussion on whether such films are the poorer for mixing fact with fiction. But what about the other aspects that can be recognised and celebrated, from untold stories to epic fight scenes?
This year, History Extra is taking a look at the details you might have missed and the films that you have been talking about. Here are the History Extra Film and TV Awards…
Alexandra Churchill is a television historian and author, whose publications include In the Eye of the Storm: George V and the Great War (2018).
Hannah Greig is a senior lecturer in early modern history at the University of York, and historical adviser to film, TV & theatre, including The Favourite and Poldark.
Greg Jenner is a public historian and adviser to film and TV, including the multi-award winning Horrible Histories. He is also the author of A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Everyday Life (W&N, January 2015).
Alex von Tunzelmann is a historian and screenwriter of historical drama including Medici: Masters of Florence and Churchill.
Best Historical Film or TV Programme of 2018/19
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (nominated by Alex von Tunzelmann)
The Favourite (nominated by Hannah Greig)
First Man (nominated by Alexandra Churchill)
I, Tonya (nominated by Greg Jenner)
Greg Jenner on I, Tonya: It’s really clever in highlighting its unreliability, with all the characters trying to make the film about them. A cunningly subversive biography of a woman who is either victim or aggressor, or both. We come out of the film inherently suspicious of everything.
@hisdoryan I actually really liked Outlaw King. Yes it wasn’t 100% historically accurate (What is?) But it was dirty and gritty and didn’t sanitise history
@Sparkletutu I thought Les Miserables was outstanding. Everything from the costumes, photography, sets and of course, the acting was truly brilliant.
Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce in ‘Outlaw King’. (Photo by Netfix / David Eustace)
@blogger_historyThey Shall Not Grow Old for making the reality of WW1 more close than ever before.
@fedvideogal Draw between First Man and They Shall Not Grow Old. Both for depth of research; excellent story-telling; and creative choices made in order to bring viewers into the moment.
Best Inclusion of Historical Detail:
Mary’s menstruation scene in Mary Queen of Scots (nominated by Greg Jenner)
Badgers in the Earl of Arran’s house in A Very English Scandal (nominated by Hannah Greig)
Edward VIII’s storyline in The Crown (nominated by Alexandra Churchill)
The makeup in Vice (nominated by Alex Von Tunzelmann – “I’ve never seen actors look so much like their characters”)
Greg Jenner on Mary Queen of Scots: Josie Rourke’s film Mary Queen of Scots proved a fertile source of debate, with its inclusions of oral sex, colour-blind casting, an invented meeting between Mary and Elizabeth, and Mary’s Scottish accent. But a surprising controversy arose from a bathing scene when a droplet of blood splashes into the washing bowl and we learn that the queen’s menstrual cycle has come early. Rourke put periods into period drama, and some found this distasteful.
A few years ago, while touring my book about the history of daily life, audiences kept asking me how women dealt with intimate hygiene. But their voices were always hushed with embarrassment. Eventually, I took the hint and wrote a blog for my website. There have been 108 billion humans since the dawn of our species, and around half of them menstruated. It shouldn’t be taboo. But I’ve nominated this scene for ‘Best Historical Detail’ not just because it’s normal, but also because fertility dominates the movie’s subtext.
The need to smoothly transfer kingdoms through rightful bloodline was a vital issue in dynastic politics; it loomed particularly large for the Tudors, three of whom died childless. Spies and ambassadors were desperate to discover if an ageing Elizabeth was still fertile, and reports of her bloody bedsheets would have been valuable intelligence in the European marriage market. In Mary Queen of Scots, that single blood drop determines the course of history; it symbolises all that unites and divides the two queens. Only Mary will produce an heir, setting in motion the uniting of the Scottish and English crowns. Menstrual blood is thus more than a bodily function, it is a national security issue.
Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in The Favourite (nominated by Alex von Tunzelmann)
Hannah Greig on The Crown:
The Crown makes Prince Philip unexpectedly interesting, complex and this historian’s guilty pleasure. The Crown is a landmark period production. Its vast budget meant it was always going to be glossy. But for me it has a particular status for charging into the difficult terrain of historicising living figures – and not just any figures, but the Queen and her immediate family.
Matt Smith as Prince Philip in ‘The Crown’. (Photo by Mark Mainz / Netflix)
Instantly recognisable around the world, the British royals carry a freight of values and legacies, with legions of fans and critics. It takes a brave dramatist to fictionalise such high profile living figures, imagining their private worlds and encounters, and Prince Philip must have posed a particular challenge. Memorably dubbed ‘HRH Victor Meldrew’ by historian David Starkey, The Crown successfully makes this two-dimensional public persona multi-dimensional and does so in a way that is not simply about making him ‘likeable’ or ‘relatable’, for the characterisation retains all the traits that marks out the Prince’s living reputation. Instead, the drama makes him complex, and therefore interesting.
I am not a royal fan or commentator on royal history and yet – thanks solely to The Crown– I find Prince Philip, and his place in history, newly intriguing. This is a mark of excellent historical storytelling and interpretation. In its portrayal of Prince Phillip, The Crown draws attention to a piece of the past that the viewer had not previously considered, and stimulates a curiosity in them, which had definitely not existed before.
Greg Jenner on They Shall Not Grow Old: It’s problematic in its focus on only British soldiers, but the colourisation, frame rate fixes, sharpening of image, and inclusion of group scenes reveals the humanity of the men in the trenches. We suddenly see how young they are, how funny, how some enjoyed the war… it forces us to rethink a story we’ve heard a thousand times.
What our readers say:
@jemduducu People may not think of this as history, it is, it’s just it’s recent history. Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury… it was like Freddie was reborn!
@TheWildHogg Definitely The Favourite’s portrayal of Queen Anne, Lady Abigail and Lady Sarah. Although there was some poetic licence, the politics and personal relationships rang true. I wish there was more drama around the late Stuart era. We forget how important the time was.
@stuartroxyOutlaw King– Robert the Bruce. Because @ProfTonyPollard was a historical adviser and they listened to his advice (mostly J) and so got it right.
@spyhistory It has to be @DarrenCriss as serial killer Andrew Cunanan in TV series: Assassination of Gianni Versace [American Crime Story]. Great insight into what it was like to be gay at that time whether it be a Miami Beach drifter, a closeted elderly businessman or a world renowned fashion designer
Peterloo’s massacre scene (nominated by Greg Jenner)
Cornish wrestling in Poldark series 4 (nominated by Hannah Greig)
Thugs of Hindostan (nominated by Alexandra Churchill)
Hannah Greig on the Cornish wrestling in Poldark: Have you ever seen a fight like it? Cornish wrestling is not your staple period drama fare, but its flying tussles and sweaty physicality are refreshingly far removed from the ‘battles’ that more often feature in TV takes on Georgian Britain, fought genteelly in a dance across an assembly room floor.
The Poldark fight scene gave us ‘goodies versus baddies’, the godly versus the immoral, love versus corruption – all possible goals and sacrifices wrapped up in a match that pitched Sam Carne (Demelza Poldark’s Methodist preacher brother) against Tom Harry (dastardly George Warleggan’s tough guy henchman). Harry deploys some dirty tactics to win but this scene wins my vote because it captures the ways in which Poldark mixes romance and high drama with a nuanced historical context.
Winston Graham’s original novels, on which the adaptation is based, are fictional but layered with historical detail. They capture a social history ‘from below’: a history of everyday life and ordinary people researched by Graham from archival sources. Cornish wrestling was part of the traditional culture that co-existed with the growth of new ways of life. Richard Trevithick, inventor of the first passenger steam engine, was also a Cornish mine manager and a prize-winning wrestler. His mixed CV typifies precisely the kind of interplay between tradition and modernity that was key to the spirit of 18th-century Cornwall, and which inspires Graham’s Poldark stories. The stills from the episode show the actors at full tilt, flying through the air with a physical commitment that must have left a few bruises. This scene also came with a teaser in episode one in which Ross Poldark gave Sam Carne a quick bit of training, and then needed a long soak in the tub afterwards to recover. Social history, Cornish tradition, high drama – and even Captain Poldark in the bath. Something there, then, for everyone.
The Cornish wrestling scene “captures the ways in which Poldark mixes romance and high drama with a nuanced historical context”, says Hannah Greig. (Photo by BBC/Mammoth Screen/Mike Hogan)
What our readers say:
@Gregtastic_H I was blown away by some of the large scale battles in Outlaw King. They really conveyed the confusion, brutality, and miserable squalor that must have been inescapable in close-quarters fighting. Top drawer!
The Favourite (nominated by Greg Jenner – “Queen Anne is the forgotten monarch”)
Call the Midwife (nominated by Hannah Greig)
Operation Finale (nominated by Alexandra Churchill)
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (nominated by Alex von Tunzelmann)
Alex von Tunzelmann on Can You Ever Forgive Me: Rather than going for a big wars-and-monarchs historical story, Marielle Heller’s film takes a small, intimate one – and tells is beautifully. Can You Ever Forgive Me? adapts the memoir of Lee Israel (played by Melissa McCarthy), an American biographer who fell on hard times and turned to forging letters by 20th-century celebrities. It’s fascinating for historians not only because it’s based on a true story, but because it touches on memory, records and archives: the very question of how history becomes history.
Israel begins by “improving” documents – adding a couple of juicy lines at the end of a banal (but real) letter. Soon, she graduates to full-on fakes. Her buyers lap it up. As she says: “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker.” People want to believe, so they do – even, sometimes, expert dealers and professional historians.
Israel is motivated by poverty, but also by her passion for and intimate knowledge of her subjects. Her careful forgeries are of course a salutary reminder to assess documents rigorously and cross-reference everything. More interestingly, though, the film explores an insidious form of bias: our desire to believe in stories. Israel’s mistake is that she is so skilled at delivering this. The letters she creates are just too good to be true. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is an intelligent, absorbing film, finely balanced between critical and sympathetic views of its subject, which encourages its audience to question everything. What more could a historian want?
Alexandra Churchill on Mary Magdalene: When Ben-Hur was released [in 1959] you’ll notice that you never saw more than the briefest glimpse of Christ. To represent Jesus’s likeness was a mortifying concept for Hollywood in the 1950s. Things changed over the ensuing half-century, but in 2004 there was criticism over Mel Gibson’s decision to produce The Passion of the Christ, not to mention bizarre tales of mishaps during filming that included instances of people being struck by lightning. Two years later we had Jesus’s lovechild in The Da Vinci Code, but so far as artistic license is concerned, in 2018 Mary Magdalene threatened to go further.
The very subject calls for a huge amount of artistic license, considering so little is actually known about her, the film would have to be entirely constructed of it. But somehow, given the task that was set, the film did not go far enough. They chickened out. Yes, it’s a given that the Middle East has been whitewashed, and Jesus is unabashedly American. It’s the most out of place accent since Kevin Costner strode into Sherwood Forest back in the early 90s. But as far creating a plot goes, oddly they’ve tried to offend as few people as possible with the result that it is bland. And they worried so much about giving Joaquin Phoenix a platform to brood with his deep gravelly voice, that everyone appears to forget that Mary is supposed to be the star of the show, which leaves her character shapeless and even ignored. They do at least deserve credit for not going giving us ‘Jesus, The Love Story’. That would have been too much.
Greg Jenner on the meeting of Elizabeth and Mary in Mary Queen of Scots: “Historically untrue, dramatically powerful – its justification [for the meeting between Elizabeth and Mary] has split historians down the middle.”
What our readers say:
@SallySearMary Queen of Scots, with the meeting of Queen Elizabeth I and Mary. It never happened but audiences will now believe it did. Still, fun to see David Tennant as a delightfully bearded John Knox.
@rayner_susannahAgatha and the Truth of Murder. Agatha Christie meets Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who casually informs her that Sherlock Holmes was “a dick”. As if! Plus the terrible table manners and general effing & blinding throughout the rest of the film. Completely anachronistic.
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