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Let Costume Dramas Fib About History

“I’m going to need some money,” says a tearful Nicholas in a hit BBC drama. Nick’s gone mad with Dad’s cash and now, as violins swell and tears well, Dad will have to sell the house. Tragic stuff. But wait! Hold your sympathetic pangs. This is not a gritty social realist show: this is War and Peace, and Nicholas is a Muscovite aristo having to move from one mind-bogglingly bougie estate to his backup country mansion. Hardly world-ending. This, for many, is the problem with historical drama: it leaves reality behind to glam up the morally deficient, to Hollywoodify the truth. But all that misses the point: dramas like War and Peace are not trying to tell the truth. They’re vitally important escapism.

Let’s give the critics their dues first. Scots reading this will be all too familiar with that totem of fibs, Braveheart. In every Higher History classroom across the nation Mel Gibson’s nationalistic epic gets a solid drubbing from peeved teachers: for its kilts (500 years too early), for its woad body paint (1000 years too late) and for William Wallace, the rags-to-riches peasant leader (pure nepo baby).

But putting a couple of egregious examples aside, historical dramas generally get it right, right? They have well-paid expert consultants and sumptuous costume design; doesn’t the trend seems generally well-researched and accurate? Think again. When was the last time you saw an aristocrat with yellow teeth? I can guarantee the Tudors did not have dental hygienists. Where are Rapunzel’s smallpox scars? Where is Uhtred of Bebbanburg’s vitamin deficiency? We seem to have forgotten what Horrible Histories drummed into us as kids — people in the good old days were less Mel Gibson and more smelly, underfed objects of medical concern.

Along with being flat-out false, the critics say, isn’t this all also quite regressive? Look at Nick’s financial woes — the message of so many historical dramas seems to be: look how hot and relatable feudal landowners used to be! Imagine prestige dramas in a hundred years, with a tear jerking finale about the Tarquin’s disappointing ExxonMobil yacht party. The whole thing seems odd to say the least.

Except all this misses the point of these dramas. They aren’t made to be neutral, even-handed academic depictions of history — for that, unfortunately, we have the tender mercies of Jstor — but rather as fantasies, a way for people whose daily lives do not and will never involve palaces and ball gowns. So yes, you can say these shows are regressive, but really, thinking about it from a different angle, they are oddly progressive. This isn’t to mention the wealth of historical dramas which are explicitly unkeen on the good old days: Downton Abbey is about the contradictions and decline of the British class system. Mad Men is hardly taking a rose-tinted look at 1960s America.

Anyway, even if some of these shows and films do romanticise class divisions, they hardly hurt the middle and working classes today. In fact, historical dramas are ridiculously beneficial to Britain’s economy. I could give you stats on the legions of misty-eyed tourists who, fed a diet of kilted heartthrobs and flouncing royals, descend on Britain to part with their hard-earned cash; I could tell you how they bring in five times the UK defence budget in tourism revenue, for instance, but I don’t think I need numbers to prove the allure old-timey Britain has — this is St Andrews, go out onto Market street and you’ll bump into a new Netflix docudrama being shot.

In the 80s cult film Dirty Dancing, there’s a climatic montage where Baby, who has never danced before, trains to become a professional-level ballroom dancer — in half a week. You can sneer at that. But, just like pretty much any ‘historical’ drama, it’s not meant to be realistic, and you’re missing the point if you expect it to be. I have little sympathy for Napoleonic-era feudal landowners, and yet Nicholas Rostov telling his dad he’s broke did, I confess, make me choke up a bit. I don’t see a tension there because, in a way, the show isn’t trying to be about 19th century Russia. It’s a series made in the 21st century, for an audience of all classes, starring British actors fretting over people they love.

Illustration by Ruby Pitman

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