Rewriting history: how imperfect costume dramas make the past relevant

When Ada Shelby in Peaky Blinders ate popcorn as she watched a silent film, some historically minded viewers may have choked on their own popcorn at home, since the snack was not invented until “talking pictures” came in. Fans of authentic detail were also upset when female characters in early episodes of the BBC drama The Tudors sported long, billowing sleeves, a style only introduced later when Anne Boleyn became queen.

Charges of historical inaccuracy have dogged costume dramas from the outset, prompting complaints about anachronistic language, decor and technology. Occasionally, attacks on the fidelity of a show can become a question of national importance, as when the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, called for the Netflix series The Crown to be prominently labelled “fiction”.

Next month, however, historians are extending the hand of friendship to film-makers and television production companies.

A virtual conference on 9 July is to invite new collaborations between academics, dramatists and the entertainment industry in an effort to see if they can help each other. Popular costume dramas such as The Crown, The Terror and Bridgerton have proven once again how ready the public are to be transported back in time. And each hit drama has its own trademark attitude to period detail.

“So many historians have ideas they want to share, and so we want to see how these two worlds could start to talk to each other, particularly as there is such a flourish of such dramas at the moment,” said Dr Madeleine Pelling of the centre for 18th century studies at York University, one of the organisers of the Exeter University conference. “It is not so much about checking up on whether a teacup in a scene is the right teacup – it is about perhaps getting historians involved at an earlier stage.”

The Crown, starring Emma Corrin, should be labelled ‘fiction’, according to the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden.
The Crown, starring Emma Corrin, should be labelled ‘fiction’, according to the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden. Photograph: Des Willie/AP

History professors, Pelling argues, are actually more open-minded than dramatists fear and have a wealth of untold stories to tell.

Running the conference with Pelling is Anthony Delaney, a history PhD student at Exeter, who has detected a shared enthusiasm in the two worlds for approaching the past with greater freedom.

“Screenwriters can’t find enough new stories at the moment and academics have all this research. This could be a way to begin that conversation, as they’d be surprised to find that historians are not so precious at all and are very open to stories being told in a new way,” he said.

Like a good historian, Delaney can see it from both sides. He is also a working actor and writer, and is in Ireland filming a new costume drama, Harry Wild, a mystery thriller starring Jane Seymour.

“This is not all about a heavy, instructive relationship. Another show I was in, Penny Dreadful, was a good way of bringing lots of stories together and prompting a debate about literary history,” said Delaney.

Pelling, an expert in 18th-century material and visual culture, believes there has been a move away from overriding concerns about historical accuracy in recent years.

“Historians are often now more interested in the creative ways that a story can be told to make it fresh and to emphasise different things, such as gender, sexuality or race,” she said.

Deliberate anachronisms in costume drama are also a trend. Not only do shows such as Peaky Blinders and The Pursuit of Love use rock soundtracks to underline modern comparisons, but the use of discordant images, such as the striking black-and-white costumes in the award-winning film The Favourite, can change a mood and draw attention to a neglected era of history.

“Anachronism is something I’m very interested in,” said Pelling. “It is often the moment when there is a creative departure as a storyteller reaches for something else. It does not mean they are being unfaithful to a story. In Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette, we see a pair of Converse shoes and it says something about the world she is portraying, something about the world of acquisition and luxury.”

Bridgerton, now to be the subject of an immersive Secret Cinema event, even linked its Netflix audience to the world of gossip in the show by running a Twitter account in the name of the narrator.

“Our perceptions of what is anachronistic and what is shocking change,” said Pelling. “For example, in 1995, Colin Firth was shocking when he came out of the lake with a soaking shirt. Our expectations of period drama will change, just as our expectations of history change. History is also a form of storytelling, after all.”

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