To be historically accurate, or not to be historically accurate: that is the question. With period dramas being a staple in the UK film and television industry, there is intense discourse over the way in which they should be carried out. Catherine Mullner will investigate the argument for historical accuracy in period dramas, and what shows like Netflix’s “Bridgerton” and Hulu’s “The Great” spell for the future of the genre.
Let me take you on a trip down memory lane. It’s 2007, and after fighting with my little sister over who got to play with the Polly Pockets, I wander into my parent’s room to bother them, as one usually does.
I start to wiggle my arms out to my Mom sitting in her chair and repeating her name like a religious chant.
“Mom, mom, mom, mom mo--.”
“Not now baby, Colin is on.”
Deciding to quiet down, I walk over and sit next to her, Polly Pocket in hand. On the screen, I see a beautiful green meadow, a sprawling estate, and a man in a white shirt.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but I was watching one of the most iconic scenes in television history. Colin Firth as Fitzwilliam Darcy majestically emerging from his estate’s pond in a clinging wet tshirt in BBC1’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice will forever be remembered.
Although many associate history with a subject that is tedious, it is in the world of historical drama/period drama that people can see all the tension and, well, drama of history come to life (especially in the form of Colin Firth in a clinging wet shirt).
In “Fact Through Fiction: A Case Study of Televised Historical Drama’s Influence on Audiences’ Perceptions of the Past” by Katherine Anne Donahue, she references a poignant quote by Robert Rosenstone, “the increasing presence of the visual media in modern culture and the vast increase in TV channels seems to ensure that most people now get their knowledge of the past, once school is over, from visual media.”
Period dramas give audiences the opportunity to see and explore different eras and perspectives at a touch of a fingertip. While it is incredible to have this much information and entertainment on hand, many have made the argument that period dramas have a responsibility to provide historical accuracy as much as they can.
Whether it’s outrage at the liberty taken with historical events, such as with The Kennedys (2011), or anger at inaccurate costuming, such as in Downton Abbey (2010-2015) or recently Bridgerton (2020-), there will always be upset viewers with every period drama.
So, how do we find a balance in creating a period drama with enough historical accuracy while appealing to the appetite for drama and entertainment in general audiences?
Assuming an audience
It was best said by Radio Times writer Gareth McLean in a 2018 History Extra article on the subject of historical accuracy in period tramas: “Audiences are not stupid… 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.”
Every select audience of a genre in media has an assumed psychology around it. For those who enjoy or consume period dramas regularly, there are specific expectations assumed by producers. Target audiences for most period dramas tend to be women ages seventeen to fifty specifically. Traits many associate with these audiences are usually are interests in history, romance, and emotional intelligence.
Therefore, you have audiences and their subsequent shows between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, you have the fear and assumption that if audiences see inaccuracies in costuming and wardrobe (i.e. anyone with side bangs in Victorian England) they will immediately complain, and therefore deem the whole show thoughtless. Yet, thinking back to Garth McLean’s words above, to surrender plot, character development, and theme construction for the sake of historical accuracy is not only pandering to audiences, but detrimental for the show itself.
The study of history, some could argue, is about translating the past to a present mindset. There will be errors in translation and different interpretations based on the translator’s background and
Historical accuracy is not the ultimate end all to a show’s success in translating the themes and story they seek to portray. Period dramas don’t need to recreate 1920’s America brick by brick; they do, however, need to draw us into the world they have decided to set their story in and immerse us into the perspectives of their characters. This is then, as many expect, done through trying to make the set, costuming, and dialogue historically accurate.
Yet, while that is admirable to do, it does not make a series or film ultimately “good”, if we can use that broad definition here. What viewers remember about a show is how it made them feel as people, not whether or not there really were yellow double lines on the road in that one episode of Downton Abbey (2010-2015).
The Issue of Complete Accuracy in the 21st Century
Ultimately, I’d like to offer up the fact that it can not be a period drama without some form of dramatisation.
Whether that comes in the form of modern dialogue in films like The Favourite (2018) or wildly inaccurate but incredibly fun gowns in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) (which can be seen as a trailblazer for the success of such programmes as Bridgerton and The Great), period dramas are allowed to use different methods to dramatise historical events and therefore qualify as a drama, in the theatrical sense.
Furthermore, opening up areas of arts and media that have often been closed off to POC performers and artists is truly more important than retaining absolute historical accuracy. To enjoy the work of POC artists while continually barring them from productions such as period dramas is incredibly hypocritical.
Some have argued in the not so recent past that having a diverse cast in period dramas set in a time when this would have been impossible ruins the integrity of the show.
However, that line of reasoning falls apart when we look at the multitude of period dramas that portray historical figures in a dramatised and romantic way -- i.e. a historically inaccurate way. We are ready and eager to accept inaccuracy when it is within the safe realm of Eurocentrism we know, yet some cannot fathom the idea of a POC actor having a main role in a regency era production that is already completely dramatised.
Let me remind you here too that audiences were completely fine accepting that an actor like Eric Bana (featured below) was perfect for the role of Henry VIII in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), which quite frankly was like having Robert Pattinson do a biopic portrayal of Danny Devito as the Penguin in Batman Returns (1992).
The reasoning that POC actors cannot participate in period drama productions has the same ring as those who argue that confederate statues should be kept up in the United States because they are “part of history.”
History is living and breathing with us everyday, and the way we portray it is very much about how our society is today, not how it was two hundred years ago
I am not declaring that it is an absolute requirement from 2021 onwards that all period dramas that can do colour blind casting or colour conscious casting have to. To define, colour conscious casting is “...the belief that actors and actresses in major motion pictures, television series, and on stage performances of the theatre ought to be cast in a manner which intentionally considers their race and ethnicity in order to prevent the continuation of the racist traditions of show business that were once completely acceptable”. For more information, check out this article on Color-Conscious Casting – Civic Issue Blog (psu.edu) by Chloe Crager.
So, if one is creating a period drama that’s main plot does not revolve around an issue of racial equality in history (i.e. perhaps a show set in Civil War era America), then I think it is important to consider and think over why you do not want to have a colour conscious cast in your production.
An example of excellent colour blind casting for the time is Rodger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1997) featuring the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Whitney Houston, Brandy, and Paolo Montalban, where Brandy made history as the first Black actress to portray Cinderella. This film, although not technically a period drama, is today regarded as one of the best versions of Cinderella in modern media, both because of its costuming, strong heroine, and diverse cast.
More recent examples of period dramas that have looked beyond the traditional all-white cast for their renditions of popular Dickens, Austen, and Shakespeare stories are Armando Ianucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield (2013) starring Dev Patel, Belle (2013) starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and now Hulu’s The Great and Netflix’s Bridgerton.
I would put forth the key point here that the argument for historical accuracy is highly dependent on what the show promises to deliver on that front.
For example, the creator of The Great Yorgos Lanthimos has labeled the show “anti-historical”. As a result, the show took further liberties with the history around Catherine the Great, and featured Elle Fanning in a hot pink ball gown and an incredibly diverse cast, including POC actors Sacha Dhawan, Denusia Samal, and Sebastian De Souza.
This is where most of you will now turn against me when I say that here lies my issue with Netflix’s Bridgerton. Whether you absolutely hate Bridgerton or love it, it has reported that it has reached 82 million households globally. With stunning (although notably inaccurate) costuming and explicit sex scenes, Bridgerton is the pinnacle of the modern period drama. However, with a cast that only features a handful of light-skinned Black actors in speaking roles and an otherwise predominantly all-white main cast, producer Shonda Rhimes and creator Chris Van Dusen promising to “explore issues like gender and class and race and sexuality” seems slightly slacking.
Perhaps that is harsh in light of the otherwise successful release of this program, however when compared to other period dramas that have enlisted very diverse casts in similar eras, it still relies on outdated, colourist stereotypes to determine what roles POC performers are constrained to.
For more food for thought, I would check out “Why Bridgerton is Problematic”, a video from the Inclusion in Costuming Panel 2021 that I have linked below. In this video, the women on this panel discuss their specific issues in Bridgerton and the barriers they still see in something that has been declared “ahead of its time.”
Ending Thoughts (I Promise, it is the End)
Representation is power. While white viewers are used to seeing themselves dominating the screen, especially in the typical period drama, there are countless barriers to entry that POC performers, producers, and designers face in trying to get to that same exact spot.
As mentioned in a 2020 BBC article, “Is it time the all-white period drama was made extinct?”, Hanna Flint writes: “A multiracial Britain existed before revisionists and colonialist apologisers began white-washing books and tomes.”
To continue the narrative that POC lives were not autonomous until the twentieth century and beyond is not only ignorant, but harmful.
Everyone deserves to see themselves on screen. Whether or not that’s as Emma in the next production I’m sure will come out in five years, or as Pip in Great Expectations, is up to how much intolerance we as an audience tolerate.