History presents us Scribes with many stories that we can exploit, but it also presents us with a dilemma: just how true should a true story be? I’ve already discussed this notion from a philosophical standpoint here on the blog, but when it comes to historical drama on the telly, we’ve been shown, countless times, that it’s story and not fact we should stick to.
Period drama is big business as far as TV Drama goes and post-90s in particular prodcos and institutions like The Beeb have been striking out beyond the “safe”, tried-and-tested adaptations of authors like Dickens, Austen and Bronte. And thank f*** for that. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Classics, but there’s only so much I can take of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre or Dickens’ more dubious back catalogue like Martin freakin’ Chuzzlewit.
So what have we been treated to, post millenium? Well, events, arenas and even royalty have been given period drama’s new “look” – we’re encouraged not to look into the past with rose-coloured spectacles and a Jonathan Dimbleby-style narration, but to see these stories in all their glory in a more Hollywoodised big budget blockbuster way. We have big set pieces, stunts, controversy, sex, violence, gore and more.
And you know what? I bloody love it! No doubt it’s because I am a product of the MTV-style generation and purists will say my culture is considerably lower brow than theirs, but as far as I am concerned stories are stories and history is home the biggest stories of all: those things that go down in history then as being “memorable” deserve to have the works thrown at them.
As for facts… No thanks. Now I love history; I loved it even at school where the National Curriculum goes out of its way to spoil it for UK kids by making them study WW2 for five consecutive years (accounting perhaps for some young people’s “meh” attitude to our great nation and the immense sacrifices made for us, but that’s a soap box moment for another time).
History might have drama, but that does not mean you should always have fidelity in my view: we say the same about how stories play out structurally after all. And what is “fact” in History? Usually History is entirely androcentric (male orientated) and often we are relying only on eye witness accounts, diaries, old pictures or government statements anyway. Hardly what one would call reliable… How can you have facts when everyone sees the world differently in any case? Thus you cannot have “true” fidelity as far as I am concerned. But anyway… Here are some of my favourite Historical-based dramas of the past few years and what I liked about them.
KRAKATOA: THE LAST DAYS
What I liked: Jeopardy
What I thought was really strong about Krakatoa was the sense of foreboding before the eruption in particular: the tension in the air was as thick as the smoke that belched out of the volcano afterwards. Similarly, the protagonist’s desperate urge to reach his family as the water came in was fanastic and as they tied themselves to trees in order not to get swept away, not only was this Hollywood-standard stunt andflood work, there was a sense of what *could* have happened in Thailand in the Tsunami which was very poignant. In short, we got a real sense of the jeopardy but also this very human moment that all of us can relate to despite the fact none of us are likely to have gone through something so huge.
What I liked: Arena
I wasn’t expecting to like this 4-parter since I had enjoyed the Cate Blanchett movie, but I was pleasantly surprised. The Elizabeth played out here seemed more vengeful, jealous and suspicious and this was reflected well by the environment of the court. Everywhere eyes were upon her and the traitors she was sure were in her midst: the corridors of her castle were labyrinthine but rather than being opulent, everything seemed that the closer you look, the more dirty and sordid it became.
What I liked: Characterisation
I was surprised to hear at the end of the first series that there would be another as I was unsure they could take it any further… I was to eat my words. What worked brilliantly about Rome was its characters that were bigger, more outrageous than any period drama I’d ever seen before. Titus Pullo for example was brilliant: when faced with certain death after being washed up on an island with friend Lucius he declares, ever-optimistic: “I didn’t think I’d die like this… Be nice to see my mother again though.” Nothing ever fazed him. Similarly Attya was a Lady Macbeth of such extreme measure that she is hoist by her own petard at getting son Octavius the crown to Rome. Though there were many threads to this drama, they all came together so well that confusion never troubled the viewer. Truly fabulous.
Any fave historical dramas? Any that you hate? Over to you…