Does historical accuracy really matter in period dramas like Wolf Hall?

The team behind the 2015 BBC Tudor drama Wolf Hall went to great lengths to ensure the programme was as historically accurate as possible. But how important is it for period dramas to be faithful to history?

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall. (BBC Pictures)

“You have to take your research seriously, otherwise there is no point in it at all”.

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These are the words of Hilary Mantel, whose award-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies have been adapted by BBC Two for the immensely popular period drama starring Damian Lewis, Mark Rylance and Claire Foy. Discussing the importance of historical accuracy when writing a novel set in the past, Mantel told us: “You can’t speculate emptily about the personal reality of people’s lives. It has to be grounded in time, place and context.”

Her sentiments have been echoed by many of those who worked on BBC’s Wolf Hall: adviser Dr Catherine Fletcher told History Extra the production team was “very keen to ensure that, as far as possible, what they were doing was [historically] correct”, while in another interview, costume designer Joanna Eatwell detailed the numerous sources to which she referred while researching Tudor clothing – namely famous writings, and the portraits of Hans Holbein.

But does historical accuracy in period drama really matter? Does it enhance the viewer’s experience? Arguably, for those tuning in solely for entertainment, it does not. We suspend our disbelief while watching medical and legal dramas, and most of all soaps – why should period dramas be any different? You might even argue that something is lost in the process of adhering slavishly to historical accuracy: the storyline interrupted, the dramatic suspense dampened. Historian Tom Holland wasn’t alone when he described Wolf Hall on Twitter as “a wee bit boring”.

But for others, historical errors can completely ruin enjoyment of a show. ITV’s Downton Abbey came under fire in 2011 when a number of viewers criticised producers for the drama’s ‘error-laden script’. Some complained that particular words and phrases were not being used in the correct historical context, while others claimed to have spotted a modern-style conservatory in shot and double yellow lines on a road. Many of the claims were fiercely contested, however, with the Oscar-winning creator of the show, Julian Fellowes, insisting it was “pretty accurate”.

“The real problem is with people who are insecure socially, and they think to show how smart they are by picking holes in the programme to promote their own poshness and to show that their knowledge is greater than your knowledge,” he is reported to have said.

Fellowes’ mention of knowledge is particularly pertinent to this debate: upon what is the historical know-how of the majority of the population based? According to Robert Rosenstone, emeritus professor of history at the California Institute of Technology, “the vast increase in TV channels seems to ensure that most people now get their knowledge of the past, once school is over, from the visual media”.

If this is true, surely producers have a responsibility to ensure their works are accurate? One might argue they are doing us a disservice by distorting the facts, contributing to what historian Lucy Worsley described last year as the public’s ‘ignorance’ about history?

But perhaps the issue is not so ‘black and white’ – might there be scope for a happy medium: a blend of fact and fiction that simply sparks viewers’ interest in a subject and encourages them to find out more? In the words of Radio Times writer Gareth McLean: “Audiences aren’t stupid. I think it’s a little bit patronising to assume that the audience takes everything at face value. They can make up their own minds and if they want to find out more then they can do a bit of research around the subject.”

This approach doesn’t seem to have worked for the controversial mini-series The Kennedys, which aired in the UK in 2011, however. Filmmaker Robert Greenwald made an 11-minute video calling for the programme to be banned, in which author Nigel Hamilton questioned: “Why mix [personal affairs] in with serious history if you’re not going to treat the history seriously?” As Geoff Nunberg, a linguist and professor at University of California, Berkeley’s School of Information, wrote in 2013: “The stakes are higher when dramas render actual events.”

Perhaps, then, the issue is not with period dramas as a whole, but with those that claim to be faithful to history. Viewers should rightly demand more from such programmes, and will likely engage with them differently, expecting factual content. Conversely, we ought to accept that dramas operating in what Hilary Mantel describes as “the vast area of interpretation” should give us, in the words of Geoff Nunberg, “a translation, not a transcription.”

A drama doing “what it says on the tin” is perhaps what matters most…

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This article was first published by History Extra in 2015