Period dramas should not be judged on historical accuracy, say historians

Historical accuracy should not always be the primary concern in period dramas, two leading historians have claimed

Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark in the TV series 'Poldark'. (Photo by Adrian Rogers)

In a podcast interview with History Extra, Poldark’s historical adviser, the historian Hannah Greig and Horrible Histories consultant Greg Jenner said dramatists should have the freedom to fictionally interpret the past.

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“I don’t think dramatists need to be historians; I don’t think it’s their job,” said Jenner. “I think drama is there to entertain us. Dramatists are there to spellbind us, to make us laugh and cry and fear for our favourite characters.”

Hannah agreed: “In some ways the most important thing is to have great story. That has to be the priority. A historical adviser can help to drive that story forward, informed by what we know about the past, but Greg is probably right that we shouldn’t try to determine what that story is.”

Hannah continued: “The discussion of accuracy is something that crops up a lot on Twitter and in newspapers – it’s a way in which lots of [historical] dramas are judged. As a historian involved in the process I’m always asking myself ‘what does that mean? What are we trying to achieve by creating something that’s accurate?’ Because history is continually being made by new scholarship and by historians.

“So we can think about things being well informed by historical knowledge, but that’s not quite the same issue as ‘have they got everything right?’ And I’m not sure that the second part of that is particularly helpful – ‘oh, is that the exactly the right piece of clothing; is that the perfect period-precise room?’

“For me what’s important are ‘is the narrative meaningful for the time in which it’s set? Are the characters’ motivations informed by the choices that I would understand as being the choices that were faced by the people at the time? Does it carry me emotionally in the way that I might think about the historical past?’

“Those are the issues that really matter to me as a historian, and less so about whether we’ve sourced exactly the right wine glass”.

Drawing a distinction between historical dramas, Greg said: “I tend to think there are different categories for history on television as drama: you have the actual historical events that happened and you’re trying to dramatise those – I think that’s where perhaps there’s more of a burden to get it right or at least be pretty respectful of the truth – or what you think is the truth. And then you have the literary adaptations or the entirely fictional where you invent historical scenarios. For example, Poldark is a literary adaptation from the 1940s.

“So if you’re making a drama about, say the Titanic or the First World War – something where real lives were lost or real stories were felt, where there’s that potency of the real human story – I think then perhaps that’s when there is more of a responsibility to be at least engaging with history.”

Hannah agreed: “Poldark is adapted from a novel so in some ways the burden of responsibility for the production is to make sure that it’s as close an adaptation of that novel as possible. Whereas the Victoria series [on ITV] is about a British monarch, so there’s a responsibility there with the history to ensure that that is a fair interpretation of those real and incredibly important characters in the British past and to tell that history in a significant and informed way.”

Greg went on to say: “History doesn’t fall into three-act structures. Life is complex and difficult to dramatise in such a simplistic ways. Stories have to have very rigid structures and I’m not sure history fits that well sometimes into those structures”.

Hannah agreed: “I think there should be space for us to acknowledge and reward fictional interpretations [of the past] more. I think if we continually have the conversation of accuracy and ‘everything must be accurate’ then it weighs down dramas to become less creative”.

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To listen to the podcast interview in full, click here.