Wolf Hall and the historians: What can historical drama do?
Typing #WolfHall into Twitter reveals no end of enthusiasm about the BBC’s current Tudor drama. Even Prince Charles has admitted to ‘enjoying’ it.1 However, not everyone is happy. Historian and television presenter David Starkey has described both the novel and the TV adaptation as a ‘deliberate perversion’ of history, expressing particular discontent at the level of emotion shown by Thomas Cromwell.2 Perhaps more concerningly, Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury and Bishop Mark O’Toole of Plymouth have both claimed that there is a distinctly anti-Catholic thread running through the programme, and that the character of Thomas More is grossly misrepresented.3 From the point of view of the wider audience, Wolf Hall may also be in trouble, with suggestions that a ‘confusing’ plot caused initial enthusiasm to wane and the series lost one million viewers between the first and second episodes.4
This seeming polarisation of views on Wolf Hall may just be a matter of taste. Nevertheless, the more fundamental issue of the role of historical drama is at the root of much of the discussion. For Starkey, factual accuracy is key. For Davies and O’Toole, historical drama needs to speak to modern issues and agendas in a sensitive and neutral fashion. For the one million viewers who didn’t bother to watch it the second week (there were still 2.9 million who did), it needs to have a clear and exciting plot line. With a £7 million pound budget, the public might justifiably ask what they gain from Wolf Hall. But more broadly, what is an historical drama supposed to do?
A drama can achieve little if it is not entertaining. The sticking point in the case of historical drama comes when entertainment seems impossible without being a little “creative” with the source material. Yet it remains that if a TV drama is so dull no-one wants to watch it, historical accuracy is something of a side-issue. There may not, as Starkey has pointed out, be evidence that Cromwell would have acted with such emotion at the death of his wife and daughters, but it is hard to imagine what the televised alternative might be. A blank face would have been equally as suggestive as his emotional outpouring. The genre of drama leaves little space for an even debate or nuanced historical interpretation, and therefore it has, often controversially, to take a single stance. We shouldn’t expect it to do otherwise.
That said, historical drama does arguably have a duty to be as historically accurate as possible. Quite apart from providing an irritation for history buffs, lack of attention to accuracy can be highly misleading. For viewers who do not regularly read history or are not familiar with the period, an historical drama may form the bulk of their sense of period. Thus the carefully considered costumes, lighting and setting of Wolf Hall are somewhat to be applauded. Unlike the 2007 BBC drama The Tudors, Wolf Hall is a radiator-free zone.5 TV historical drama is in a unique position to recreate a rich sense of the past, and Wolf Hall makes the most of this opportunity. David Starkey does have a point, however. The sympathetic portrayal of Cromwell is not one which would be found in many academic accounts, and is perhaps less laudable, as is the unduly harsh interpretation of More. However ‘fictional’ an historical drama is, viewers (especially school-children), do adopt ideas about the past based on what they’ve seen. Because of this we ought to expect attention to historical detail from such broadcasts.
But maybe all this debate about historical accuracy is too bogged down in minutiae. For misleading or not, surely the greatest value in Wolf Hall is in the way it has sparked debate and interest in so many arenas unreached by formal academic historiography. The National Archives are using it as a spring-board to discuss source material. The curator of the Historical Royal Palaces is using it to showcase Tudor architecture. Academic historians are having late-night blog-debates with Hilary Mantel. Wolf Hall has even made it into GQ Magazine, for goodness’ sake. Of course historical drama shouldn’t be misrepresentative, but the buzz that Wolf Hall has caused is exciting. It’s making people care. And that’s doing history in public.