Should TV Dramas Be Historically Accurate?

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VERSAILLES – VICTORIA – POLDARK – RIPPER STREET – PEAKY BLINDERS – MAD MEN – REIGN –

LINCOLN – THE BIG SHORT – SPOTLIGHT – BRAVEHEART – THE IMITATION GAME – THE BUTLER

These are all high profile historical dramas/films. But here’s a question for you:

“…should TV dramas & movies be historically accurate?”

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As you may know, I work as a Historical Adviser to TV shows set in the past — Horrible Histories has been my life for the past 8 years, and this requires a decent knowledge of world history from the Stone Age to the Phone Age, but I’ve also worked on a few historical TV dramas about specific periods of history where my job is to deliver highly focused contextual information to the production team.

The challenges of making these sort of programmes are numerous, and I lecture about them sometimes in British universities, but there are central issues that always come up. The most obvious example is the question that divides opinion wherever you go: is this TV drama historically accurate? And does that matter?

It’s a massive red button topic. Many people, particularly journalists writing newspaper reviews of history dramas, think that historical accuracy is among the most important metrics for measuring a programme’s quality, alongside whether it’s any good. But these reviewers are rarely trained historians. While many historians will agree with them, and I’ve had many a heated debate about Braveheart and The Imitation Game (great films, bad history), such historians will also often acknowledge that it’s also incredibly difficult to even define what we mean when we talk about historical accuracy. History is constantly being rewritten, because it is not the same thing as the past.

On this exact subject, I was interviewed recently by BBC History Magazine for their podcast. In the discussion, I was joined by the excellent Dr Hannah Greig (the expert adviser to BBC’s smash-hit drama Poldark), and we tackled a lot of the big issues that arise when making historical TV dramas.

You may be surprised by our answers. It’s an hour long podcast, and a fairly serious conversation (I’m usually a bit more jokey, but I get quite nerdy when I talk about this subject). But I hope we might lead you to re-examine what you think about historical dramas and the question of historical accuracy.

Thanks, hope you enjoy it!

Greg

And here’s your link to the podcast.