On historical inaccuracy in television dramas

Like a lot of people, I enjoy historical dramas. Whilst I do not feel it is quite deserving of the lavish praise heaped upon it, I do enjoy Mad Men, and Deadwood and Boardwalk Empire (the first season at least) are two of my favourite shows. However, one topic which always seems to crop up when discussing historical dramas is the issue of historical inaccuracy, and whilst I would hardly consider it to be something which can ‘make or break’ a television show, it is nonetheless a subject I feel is important to consider.


First off, I have little to no patience with the sorts of people who nit-pick over every last detail in historical fiction. Admittedly, if a screenwriter or was so blasé as to have Henry V defeat the French at the Battle of Agincourt by mowing down his opposition with a Gatling gun; or decide that it would be appropriate to have the Americans lend the Parliamentarians a hand during the Civil War, then I can see why people would complain. Similarly, it is amusing when your enjoyment of a drama set in Tudor England is disrupted by the sight of a plane or the sound of a crew member’s phone going off.


Where I draw the line, however, is when people complain about things that no one else would neither have noticed nor cared about. The sort of person who equates a drama about World War One using the wrong model of tank as a betrayal of the memory of everyone who died; or who knows the exact type of wood used to construct thatch cottages in the sixteenth century, and who thinks that anyone making a drama about that period should damn well know too, or there will be hell to pay. These complaints usually begin with a lines such as “I tuned into this show expecting to experience a drama grounded in thorough historical research,” and ends with the line, “this sort of blatant abuse of historical fact crosses the line of artistic license into the realms of pure fiction. You have lost a faithful viewer today, and hopefully many more,” and they are all bunkum.


I extend this view to the order in which events occurred. As before, obviously there are some events that have to happen in the order they did; and in many occasions the artistic and historical narrative match up pretty neatly. But there are some  occasions where if the creator stuck rigidly to historical reality, they would completely destroy any tension or drama, either because the events happened too far apart or too close to each other to create any suspense; or they happened in an order which would confuse the narrative. In these cases, I feel it is justifiable for the creator to play a bit loser with chronological detail, so long as they are not completely misrepresenting what actually happened.


The same can also be said of characters, in that many shows either create fictional representations to fill in for real people or persons, such as Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire; or dramatise the lives of real people like many of the characters in Deadwood, for artistic effect and narrative convenience. Overall, what I feel is most important is not historical accuracy, but historical authenticity, and whilst at first they seem to be the same thing, in my opinion it is possible for a drama to be historically authentic, without being historically accurate.


The classic case of this is Deadwood. As Charlie Brooker has pointed out in the past, people in the Wild West did not use swearwords like ‘fuck’ or ‘cunt’, they used words like ‘tarnation’ or ‘nincompoop’. The problem is that if a modern drama used those words as swearwords, at best it would come across as a parody. As such, by using swearwords which modern audiences find offensive, they created an air of authenticity which would not have been created had they used historically accurate language, and I think this is an idea that should be generally observed.


It does not matter if the British Army did not use that particular type of rifle in the Boer War; or that the policemen of the 1820s were not referred to as ‘cops’; or whatever minor historical inaccuracy has slipped through the research process. If the programme immerses you, and makes you feel like you are watching an authentic recreation of whatever period of time it is dramatising then the show has succeeded. If you want to learn more about that period, and find out whether the events shown happened as they did; or if the characters involved are accurate portrayals, then great. But a show should not be considered a failure if it does not recreate the past exactly as it was, and in many ways this never ending insistence on absolute accuracy is a fool’s errand which would lead to far less interesting and engaging programming.

At the end of the day, people do not watch a drama to learn, they watch it to be entertained; and whilst by no means I would ever advocate the “if it is for entertainment, we can rewrite history” approach of screenwriting, nor do I think writers should slavishly ensure that every last micro-detail of their drama is historically correct. In a way, a historical drama which makes a great song and dance of the efforts it has made to be one hundred per cent accurate is missing what makes historical drama great, and that is the fact that it can take liberties which academic history cannot in order to create a narrative which is far more involving and ironically more authentic, even if it is not as accurate. Ultimately, all history is interpretation, and this includes academic history. All dramas do is take the artistic license a step further.


One thought on “On historical inaccuracy in television dramas

  1. […] at that time, because modern viewers would miss things or misinterpret them. Blogger TPD Whitehead makes this point, using Deadwood (disclosure: a show I’m familiar with only by name) as an […]

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