Sunday, 13 September 2015

Televising the past - truth or fairy tales?

How much does the 'story' part of history matter?

If you are going to teach history you need to teach the facts, right? Films and TV dramas that mess with those facts are irresponsible, misleading and wrong. Right?  That 'awful film' Braveheart that got the Battle of Stirling Bridge so badly wrong - removing the bridge from the retelling - and that terrible series The Tudors which didn't even bother to slap a ginger beard on Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Tut tut. This will never do.

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Except ...

Well, how about going back to the beginning - and no, I don't mean pre-history - to take a look at how history should or shouldn't be taught in schools.

Richard Kennett, teacher and contributor to BBC Radio 4's Making History wrote insightfully in History Today magazine: "Narrative at school is often a dirty word ... as teachers we scrawl ... 'stop telling the story' in the margins of essays as if this was an insult to history." He went on to say, "Children love a story and what makes history great is that these are stories that actually happened. Tell your students about the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170. Four knights entering Canterbury Cathedral and lopping off the head of an archbishop. What more could you ask for to grab the attention of a class?"

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So, does it matter if that story deviates a little from the truth?

The strange thing about story-telling, when it comes through the medium of film or TV, is that by masking the facts one can sometimes interest viewers sufficiently to lead them to discover the truth:

Let's go back to that terrible series The Tudors. Perhaps I'm an equally terrible parent but I allowed my youngest child, then aged about 12 or 13, to watch it. She loved it; initially, I suspect, because she was rather taken with the aforementioned Mr Rhys Meyers, and possibly the equally fine Henry Cavill as Suffolk. When we took a family holiday to Ireland she was keen to see some of the locations used for filming, such as Kilruddery House, pictured below

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but she was equally interested when we visited places which were associated with historical characters

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such as Ormonde Castle and Manor House, above. Here, she learned how Francis Bryan, 'the one with the eye patch', married Lady Joan Fitzgerald, widow of the 9th Earl. Okay, so apparently the dating of his arrival at court and the appearance of the eye patch were a little wonky (pun intended), but hey, she knew who he was. The series brought my daughter to explore the history and associations with the houses we saw in Ireland. When I then quietly explained that Henry didn't look like that, and that he had two sisters, not one - she accepted it, and amended her 'knowledge' accordingly.

So what about Braveheart? It's all wrong, wrong wrong. The battle was on a bridge, not in a great big field. He's depicted having an affair with a princess who was actually only about ten when he was executed. He was a lowlander, not a highlander, so he wouldn't have worn the plaid etcetera etcetera.

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BUT - if you get that Edward I was trying to smash the Scots, if you get that Wallace 'succeeded at Stirling, failed at Falkirk', should we get too hung up? I happen to think that the film offered a realistic view of how the world looked at that time, how bloody and thunderingly loud the battles were and how chaotic the business was of the Scottish succession in this period. Such images surely serve to give people a better idea of history than none at all? 

Ian Mortimer, author and historian, makes the argument that academic debates are but a small part of history and that "The vast bulk of history lies elsewhere ... in the biographies and general history books. It lies in the television programmes that bring key themes to the attention of millions overnight."

The Braveheart film spawned many serious documentaries detailing what is known about Wallace's life, which surely reached a larger audience than they would have done had the film not been made.

But how far can you go to make it a good story before it deviates and stops being history? I'm thinking immediately of the film A Knight's Tale - but, if it gets people interested in Chaucer by thinking he looked like Paul Bettany...

My A levels studies of Bismarck and the unification of Germany were much enhanced by my notion that Bismarck looked like Oliver Reed, who played him in the Flashman film.  (And I can't help wondering how more recent students will have enjoyed studying the Napoleonic era now that they can picture Richard Sharpe charging around capturing Eagles). Sharpe was fictional, but boy can we all now picture what the battles of the Peninsular War looked like...

Probably one of the most earnest historical films was Mary Queen of Scots which was made in 1971 and starred two of the most talented and respected actresses of their generation: Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave. Yet even here, there was an erroneous scene depicting the two queens meeting, which has never been proven to have happened. Did it spoil my learning or understanding? Nope.

Some years ago I visited Dover castle at the beginning of a project to redecorate some of the rooms in the Great Tower. Now it's finished, and they depict how these rooms would have looked at the time of Henry II. 

image - English Heritage

Better, perhaps, to reconstruct, to avoid the lament which my own children chanted regularly when we were on holiday: "Not another castle, please, Mummy." I still recall their glee when we went to one that "Actually has a roof on it!" How much better it is for children to 'see' what the past might have looked like.

When I was a child, a joke, (admittedly a bad one) had a mother lemming asking her child, "If your friends asked you to jump off a cliff, would you?" Now we know that lemmings don't have suicidal tendencies, but it's a bit mealy-mouthed to point it out and spoil the joke. Sometimes we have to go with the accepted 'truth', the one that engages people, gets them interested.

Susannah Lipscomb, Convenor for History and Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the New College of the Humanities, London recently remarked : "As a Tudor historian I am bothered slightly less by the fact that the TV drama The Tudors had a tendency to conflate characters, rearrange historical events and compress time than by the underlying conviction that, if you can strip away all the guff about faith and politics and honour, you will discover that Henry VIII, his six wives and his ministers were really secularists with modern ideas about sexuality."

She went on to say: "But all these forms of history as entertainment share an ability to dust the discipline down: to stimulate viewers to a sense that the past was as vivid, vibrant and dynamic a place to live in as that depicted on our screens and that the issues our ancestors grappled with were as urgent to them as our social, political, spiritual and romantic lives are to us today. If they achieve this, we need not be snooty."

I think she's right.  As an educator, I am thrilled if my small charges take an interest in a new topic. If they get it a bit 'wrong', we don't criticise; we applaud their enthusiasm. If a partly inaccurate film or TV series gets it a bit 'wrong' but sparks an interest and sets off a pursuit of learning, I think that's probably okay too.

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