It’s History, Jim, But Not As We Know It

Something of a light digression this week, prompted by watching the first episode of the latest glitzy quasi-historical sword ‘n’ sex epic Da Vinci’s Demons, which appears to be from very much the same mould as the likes of Spartacus, Merlin, The Tudors, The Borgias etc. I’d expected it to be pretty risible, and in that sense it didn’t disappoint, but my main reason for watching it was to see how they’d managed to get my old stamping grounds around Swansea, where it was filmed, to pass for fifteenth century Italy. (‘Ooh look, it’s Margam Park pretending to be a Roman temple! Clever how they avoided getting the steelworks in the shot!’) Actually, of course, CGI means you can transform anywhere into pretty well anywhere else these days, and said stamping grounds are fast becoming the go-to locations for film-makers in the UK; even the cemetery where my grandparents are buried turned up in Dr Who as, of all things, the New York burial ground where the Doctor says goodbye to the Ponds (but if you pause the playback at just the right spot, you can see that the inscriptions on the headstones behind them are in Welsh).

However, all of this got me reflecting on the ways in which writers of screenplays seem to alter history in ways that would be anathema to most of the historical fiction writers I know, who take great pains over their research and attempt to create as authentic a picture of their chosen period as possible. Given the much greater reach of such series, one also wonders about the effect they’re having on popular perceptions of the past: the first couple of series of The Tudors were on when I was still teaching, and the extent to which allegedly intelligent sixth formers in a top independent school were willing to assume that it was a pretty accurate portrayal of Henry VIII’s reign was both alarming and not a little depressing. So with that in mind, here are…

Five things a visiting alien would learn about human history from watching ‘historical’ films and TV:

1/ People in the past were impossibly attractive (apart from the obligatory character played by Derek Jacobi). The historical reality can be summed up in one word. Teeth.

2/ People in the past had truly phenomenal amounts of vigorous sex (except, obviously, in Downton Abbey). OK, maybe they did. Sometimes. Charles II – yes, goes without saying. But Leonardo da Vinci? Please.

3/ People in the past thought and talked exactly like we do. Actually, this gets us on to one of those perennial issues over which historical novelists have duels at dawn, i.e. can we and should we try to be as true as possible to the mindsets and speech patterns of past ages? Realistically, of course, the answer is – mindset, yes, within reason (the risk being that rather a lot of your male characters ought really to be misogynist religious fanatics who are perfectly ok with slavery and burning witches), speech patterns, no. Unless you want to attempt a faithful pastiche of, say, The Canterbury Tales, which will undoubtedly get you a readership of precisely zero, you might just as well have your characters speaking modern estuary English, like, innit. So you want to have a Cesare Borgia who talks and behaves like a Premiership footballer? Bring it on.

4/ All past events were accompanied by an incessant orchestral soundtrack. Historical documentary? Cue soaring strings. TV drama? Wall of sound. Major historical biopic? Hire the LSO or the Chicago Symphony and get ’em to play for the whole damn duration. Take Lincoln. Now, I love John Williams’ music. Star Wars and Superman were part of the soundtrack to my youth. But let’s face it, John, somebody really needs to take you to one side and tell you that you don’t need to write an earnest minor key theme to accompany every single line of the script. When it comes to incessant music, though, an honourable exception has to be made for the fine recent film about the 1832 Paris Rising, which accurately reflected the fact that one of the principal causes of discontent was a draconian law forcing all French citizens to sing everything they wanted to say. In English. Even when they were dying of broken hearts, gunshot wounds, or horrible wasting diseases that somehow failed to prevent them belting out resounding power ballads.

5/ Battles were usually fought by about the same numbers of people who can be found brawling outside an average British pub on a Saturday night. Yes, I know, there are exceptions, thanks mainly to CGI, but otherwise, battle scenes in many TV shows and quite a few films are rather too obviously constrained by budgets. Take the recent BBC production of Henry V – worthy, well acted, but you might as well have got the English and French rugby teams to recreate Agincourt, because that was roughly the number on either side. (‘Once more unto the lineout, dear friends, once more!’)  One dreads to think how the Beeb will fare with their forthcoming production of War and Peace; but then, no-one could compete with the famous Sergei Bondarchuk version, which was able to call on a large chunk of the Soviet army to recreate the Battle of Borodino. Now that’s what I call authenticity.

At the end of the day, the success of series like Da Vinci’s Demons might suggest that we historical novelists worry too much about ‘accuracy’ and ‘authenticity’. What readers/viewers want above all is a good story, well told – or even a bad story dreadfully told, as long as it has lots of sex, violence and attractive people with unfeasibly perfect teeth. I once suggested tongue in cheek in this blog that I was contemplating ‘a plot that involves teenage wizards battling teenage vampires before engaging in torrid bondage sex with the gladiators who guard the Holy Grail’. Maybe I’ll revisit that and pitch it to TV: Fifty Shades of Da Vinci’s Tudor Vampires surely has ‘hit’ stamped all over it.   

9 Comments

  1. Sadly, the approach that most TV dramas take (including the big budget HBO ‘Game of Thrones’, basically the Wars of the Roses in fantasyland) is to avoid showing the battles altogether. Dodges included knocking the POV character unconscious just before a scrap, or holding the battle at night. In that instance, I’d rather the approach taken with The Hollow Crown which might have been on far too small a scale, but was at least suitably visceral.

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  2. Not having seen any trailers for The Da Vinci’s Demons series imagine my surprise to stumble on it the other night seeing what claimed to be ‘Florence’ and thinking, that aint Italy, that’s Castle Coch outside Cardiff, and ooh, look Neath Abbey! I kept watching mainly to spot other chilly Welsh locations pretending to be Tuscany – but boy, was it an enthusiastic pile of twaddle!

    Dan Brown’s got a lot to answer for!

    It did encourage me however, to get out my old videos of Robin Of Sherwood for a medieval nostalgia bout. Unlike the recent series with Robin and his Essex ‘hoodies’ this one, from the eighties was surprisingly historically grubby – everything is knee deep in mud, the castles look cold and draughty – all the extras look pretty gnarled and filthy and there’s a lot of very ‘British’ teeth on display. Those were the days!

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    • Ah, Robin of Sherwood – now that was class TV! Come to think of it, I had the complete DVD box set for Christmas and haven’t started on it yet…I think that’s a must over the next few weeks!

      By the way, I read Telling Stories on my Kindle the other day. Way outside my usual reading ‘comfort zone’, but I loved it – partly because the backdrops were so familiar, but also because the characters and plot were so compelling.

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      • I’m very glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

        Crack into that ROS box set. Sunday is the perfect day for watching sword fights and Nickolas Grace chewing scenery as the nasty sheriff!

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  3. Grant says:

    I had an interesting chat with Paul Lay of History Today about Spartacus. He felt (at least after the first couple of series before it rather lost its was and the coiffures got excessively good) that it was actually excellent historical drama as it tried very hard to portray a pre-Christian morality in a way that most “ancient” dramas shied away from. We also both quite enjoyed the unusual use of language and syntax. Sadly Latin is hole in my education which I haven’t yet had time to fill so I don’t know whether this implied direct translation has any veracity, but that isn’t entirely the point.

    I should, however, add at this point that I rather enjoy screen swordplay and attractive naked people, which does tend to make me rather more forgiving of historical inaccuracy than I would be otherwise.

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    • I agree about Spartacus – I was probably over-generalising unfairly for the purposes of the blog! For instance, I also thoroughly enjoy The Borgias, and certainly rate it much more highly than The Tudors; I lost what little patience I had with the latter when it merged Henry VIII’s two sisters into one and had her married to the King of Portugal rather than that of either Scotland or France…

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      • Grant says:

        We also enjoy the Borgias- beautifully shot, some proper actors and engaging characters. But it (and Spartacus) exemplifies your exception to point 5. CGI armies can now be vast but require rather tighter unit formation and discipline than even the legions, tercios and pike squares, I suspect managed. Still this is an improvement over a decade or two ago. Sharpe worked rather well as a tale of a few stragglers behind enemy lines, but Waterloo with a cast of dozens was rather risible.
        As somewhat of an aside, as I mentioned Tericios, the clack, clack, clack of pikes as a roundshot passed through one in “Alatriste” (is you can get hold of it) was a lovely moment and an illustration of what can be done when historical film making is done with real commitment.

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        • Yes, I have Alatriste on DVD; love the books and have all the titles in the series to date. I think the point about battle scenes applies in spades to naval history – hence only one Master and Commander film and relatively few episodes of Ioan Gruffydd’s Hornblower compared to Sharpe. Authentic 18th century warships and CGI of entire fleets don’t come cheap!

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  4. Great, David! What to do about period dialogue is one of the topics I cover in the online class on writing historical fiction I’ve taught a couple of times and it’s always an interesting topic. Saw a play recently about Richard I, Philippe of France, et al. and everyone talked like 21st century Londoners. It was a choice, and it more or less worked.

    But wizards, vampires, bondage with gladiators? I think you’ve got a winner.

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