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Last week I was interviewed on local radio about my role as a historical adviser on the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall. I was trailed as a ‘historical accuracy expert’. Now, in the context of media reports about Wolf Hall, that doesn’t surprise me. Much of the publicity has emphasised the detailed research that informed the production. But I’m rather wary about the way that this accuracy debate has been framed.

If I know one thing about early modern history, it’s that there are as many interpretations of it as there are historians. I also know that even when historians agree, accurate history rarely makes for excellent drama. A film-maker who tried for an ‘accurate’ version of the complexity of Tudor court politics would lose the audience within minutes. Compromise is essential. Even the most sophisticated long-form television manages at best an ensemble of a dozen. So, you pick just one or two courtiers, a couple of secretaries, a pair of ladies-in-waiting. In real life, of course, there were numerous such people. The first episode of Wolf Hall, for example, telescoped into a few lines of dialogue events that took up several dozen pages of my book on Henry VIII’s first divorce.

In debates about the accuracy of TV drama it’s often forgotten that historians do this slimming-down process too. We select case-studies. We edit. We interpret. One book – even of the 800-page doorstep variety – can’t possibly tell you everything about the reign of a single monarch. The author has made choices about what is important.

In certain areas television routinely compromises. Modern medicine means today’s typical extra has fewer pock-marks than a typical member of a historical crowd. Screen portrayals of Anne Boleyn routinely ignore historical sources suggesting she wasn’t conventionally attractive. But that isn’t a problem of historical precision, it’s a problem of the medium (and particularly for women). Everyone’s expected to be prettier on television.

Sometimes the preconceptions of the audience make accuracy awkward. As Wolf Hall director Peter Kosminsky explained on Start The Week, the TV version won’t be reproducing the garish colours of Tudor court tapestries. They would jar too much with an audience accustomed to seeing those colours as they are now, faded and muted. The decision to shoot by candlelight may have been authentic but it hasn’t met with universal approval. Music is a challenge too. The music associated with particular emotions has changed over time. Audiences today don’t know its language. There are limits to how far it is possible to be precise and still engage viewers.

But if television can’t be as precise as an academic book in full footnoted glory, it has other strengths. Television and film can visualise the past. The portrayals of Henry VIII on screen have done much to challenge the iconic Holbein propaganda image, painted relatively late in the king’s reign. Showtime series The Tudors with its uniformly gorgeous cast ripped that up, but they weren’t the first. Robert Bolt did it in the 1960s in a A Man for All Seasons, with a stage direction: ‘Not the Holbein Henry, but a much younger man, clean-shaven, bright-eyed, graceful and athletic.’ When the stage play became a film, Robert Shaw’s Henry immortalised that look.

On television we see fashions and fabrics. We see clothes – not still, as we might in a portrait – but moving with their wearers. Trains drag and catch. Winter without central heating calls for fur, if you can afford it. We see the effort of riding, the physicality of life without motorised transport. Of course, all those things can be written down, but even with the best written-down account of Tudor ceremony in hand, it takes enormous effort to recreate the image in our heads. Television does that for us. We can see who stands where, the lines of hierarchy, the formality, who’s in and who’s out. We don’t need words. Television can show us the importance of the entourage, the lack of privacy at the Tudor court. It makes clear that after sunset, when candles were expensive, the past was dark.

Television history lets viewers look at the past through the eyes of someone who was there: or allows that person to talk straight to us. We can gaze from the sidelines or, like many a courtier, we can be kept in the dark, denied information, left with mysteries to solve. Or we can simply enjoy the suspense. There is great dramatic irony to historical drama. After all, we know how the story ends. People in the past didn’t have that privilege.

The best television history takes what we know of times gone by and boils it up, condensing it into a brilliantly-rich stew of drama and excitement. That’s what it’s good at. So ask me if I like a particular show. That’s fine. Ask me if it works with what we know of the past. I’ll tell you. But after the past week, I confess I’m getting a little bit frustrated with the words ‘historical accuracy’.

Wolf Hall continues on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesdays; it will be broadcast on PBS Masterpiece in the USA, beginning April 2015.

Image: Crosby Hall, London home of Antonio Bonvisi, one of the characters featured in Wolf Hall. By Tarquin Binary at Wikimedia Commons, used with a CC-BY-SA 2.5 licence.

Catherine Fletcher is Lecturer in Public History at the University of Sheffield. Her book The Divorce of Henry VIII is published by Vintage.

Tags : historical dramahistory on televisionpublic historytudor historyWolf Hall
Catherine Fletcher

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