Rewriting history in television

Steven Ross discusses the dangers of re-writing history as fiction in several hit TV shows.

Steven Ross
17th May 2020
Credit: Netflix, IMDb
Historical TV shows give viewers a look into the past that cannot be achieved to the same degree in historical fiction novels. The set designs, the character's voices and expressions are able to bring a period of time which has been lost back to life. However, writing a historical show by definition requires the rewriting of history. Many historical shows are set so long ago that the source material is comprised of a few dusty parchments and some very old statues. But even more recent subjects of history, such as the world wars, and the Chernobyl disaster bring a host of difficulties when they are serialised for television.

Comedy provides a format that can get away with an awful lot more when it comes to making a historical show. Blackadder Goes Forth took a view of the First World War that cast British generals as maniacal butchers, a view that modern historians tend to criticise. Nonetheless, the final scene of the series, where Blackadder, Baldrick and company go over the top does an amazing job of conveying the paradoxical feelings of fear and duty that millions of soldiers would have surely felt as they faced the enemy.

Credit: BBC Studios, YouTube

Drama is not usually granted the same level of artistic license as comedy and viewers typically expect a more thorough accounting of the historical facts in such shows. The question arises though of how you approach a historical period for television. Looking at two contrasting shows, Peaky Blinders and The Crown, finds two different methods of writing history for TV.

Whilst The Crown is historically accurate, it presents a very narrow view of history

The Crown presents a top-down approach to history, where powerful, elite figures and their lives are examined. Downton Abbey also fits this criterion. Now, whilst The Crown is very historically accurate - the writers seem to have done a very good job of pouring over records and documents – it presents a very narrow view of history. The idea that the decisions of a few very powerful people, largely in isolation from the rest of British society, had huge national effects remains largely an idea. Most people would have struggled on with their lives regardless of Queen Elizabeth or how her cohorts dealt with the Aberfan disaster. The characters that you get to know through the programme all share one very small bubble and most of the country exist outside it, and outside of the show’s scope. The Crown represents a thoroughly well researched historical programme with a very narrow purview.

The struggles that the character and his fellow gangsters faced as members of an underclass in an incredibly divided society feels very real

Peaky Blinders, a very different show about a very different sort of power, looks at history from the bottom up. The Shelby’s are a working-class family living in interwar Birmingham who form a notorious gang. This programme is in many ways far less accurate than The Crown, the Shelby family never existed and the gang that inspired the show rose to prominence before the First World War, not after. Its also unlikely that they even hid razor blades in their caps, although its far more fun to imagine they did. This programme then, did not get the specific, nitty gritty facts anywhere close to correct, but where it really shines in terms of historical accuracy, is the social context that provides the shows backdrop.

Image Credit: BBC, IMDb

The scenes of deprivation in early 1900s Britain, the antagonism between the working classes and the police, the racism suffered by Gypsies and people of colour, and of course the overt sexism of the time, this is all captured perfectly in the show’s 5 seasons. So, yes, there never was a real Tommy Shelby and he certainly never came into contact with the Mafia, or Oswald Mosley. But, the struggles that the character and his fellow gangsters faced as members of an underclass in a society that was incredibly divided feels very real.

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