J D Davies

Dumb and Dumbnation

Last week, we went to see the new play Queen Anne at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. This proved to be a surprise on several levels, although, as previously flagged in this blog, the casting as John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough (a man of Dorset) of Chu Omambala (not a man of Dorset) proved not to be one of them. No: the real surprise was that the script made virtually no concessions to its audience, presenting the remarkably complex politics of the day in considerable detail. So we had lengthy exchanges about the Hanoverian succession, war strategy, taxation, and even that well-known knockout zinger on the London stage, occasional conformity. Although the strong central performances, and the innate interest of the central ‘love triangle’ between Anne, Sarah Churchill, and Abigail Masham (whether platonic or not is a question the writer sensibly left to the audience), carried the story along, and the audience with it, I sometimes wondered if I was the only person in the auditorium who was getting all the references. Goodness knows what the very few foreign tourists in the audience, who presumably hadn’t been able to get tickets for Les Mis or Phantom, made of it…

This refreshing treatment of history with real respect, coupled with a treatment of audiences as mature, intelligent people, seems to be a rarity in this day and age. This blog has contained a number of previous rants posts about the apparent obsession of modern-day museum curators with minimalist displays and dumbed down exposition – notably here and here – and has also had the occasional pop at film and TV for doing exactly the same thing, such as here and here. But can it be that the tide is finally turning? Not long before going to see Queen Anne, I’d watched Christopher Nolan’s epic film portrayal of Dunkirk, another instance where the depressing modern convention of explaining everything to audiences as though they’re five-year-olds was overturned in favour of historical accuracy, or at least, as much historical accuracy as the filmmakers could reasonably have been expected to achieve. (Don’t mention the cranes, though.) Then, of course, there’s the Wolf Hall phenomenon – and no matter what you think of Dame Hil’s characterisation, style, or sheer quantity, nobody can accuse her of dumbing down the byzantine intricacies of Tudor politics and religion.

Despite all this, there seem to be several serious confusions besetting many of those charged with presenting history to audiences, be they museum curators, film and TV makers, or, indeed, authors. For one thing, there’s the pervasive but corrosive belief that ‘accessible’ means ‘simple’. Not so: it’s perfectly possible to present ‘difficult’ information and concepts using absolutely accessible language, and this is something I always try and do in my own writing, be it fiction or non-fiction. There’s the equally insidious belief that historical stories have to somehow be made ‘relevant’ to the experience of people in the present day. Not so: look at the number of books and other forms of media that succeed precisely because they present stories and settings that are completely alien to their audience’s experience. (In a nutshell, if Game of Thrones and Harry Potter succeed precisely because they revel in strangeness, then shouldn’t the telling of ‘straight’ history emphasise the strangeness and otherness of experiences in the past, not play them down and attempt to ‘modernise’ them?) Then there’s the apparent belief that people simply can’t cope with too much information, and will switch off if they’re presented with it. Again not so. From my own thirty or so years’ experience as a History teacher, I can attest to the fact that the thing most guaranteed to get an audience switching off is patronising them with over-simplifications; treat your audience, even if they’re eleven, as intelligent human beings, capable of an attention span longer than that of the average goldfish, and they’ll lap up anything you put in front of them.

I have all of these issues very much at the forefront of my mind at the moment, because I’m hard at work on the first of my Tudor stories for Endeavour Ink


And there you go: I’m immediately guilty of ‘dumbing down’ myself. Why on earth should a series of gritty adventures that happen to be set in the sixteenth century be described as ‘Tudor’, especially when no members of the family in question are going to appear as characters, except fleetingly and largely ‘off stage’? Because ‘Tudor’ is an easy, lazy shorthand, that’s why – and, moreover, it provides instant name recognition for marketing purposes. People know where they stand when something’s called ‘Tudor’ (even if the family in question didn’t actually use that surname at all). So I can promise you this: while these stories are going to be ‘accessible’, they’re certainly not going to pull any punches when it comes to the major issues of the time. And the word ‘Tudor’ isn’t going to appear in them at all. Not once.

You heard it here first.