It may be good fun, but it’s not always good history | Sonia Sodha

Screenwriters interpret historical events to entertain, but to make up facts shows a lack of responsibility

It says much about how our patterns of media consumption have changed that my festive top pick wasn’t the BBC’s big-ticket Christmas Day offering, but the second series of the Netflix drama The Crown. It didn’t disappoint: its combination of emotional drama, sweeping history and exquisite acting made it one of the most entertaining things I’ve watched in 2017.

I suspect I’m not alone in consuming most of my history through popular culture. I’d struggle to name a straight-up history book I’ve read this year. But I cheered the Dunkirk flotilla in its stunning cinematic depiction and shed a tear alongside Jackie Kennedy in this year’s biopic. I’m looking forward to the new Churchill film in January, while I was gutted to hear that the final instalment in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell may be delayed until 2019.

I remember my first A-level history essay: the red pen scoring the section where I naively wrote that Henry VII sacrificing his teenage daughter, Margaret, to an arranged marriage showed just how much he wanted the alliance with Scotland. “That’s why we’ve picked an early modern syllabus,” my history teacher drily remarked. “It forces you to act more like a real historian.” The academic study of history as an attempt to arrive at as full and accurate an account of what happened is critical to understanding our past, but I think it’s fine – indeed, for the best – to leave that to academic historians.

It would be easy to be prissy about box sets. Most discussion about history for the masses centres on the school curriculum, as if that were a history fix-all. But I’d struggle to recall more than the broad outlines of what I studied then and there are periods of history that are neglected and overlooked by the curriculum, such as the postwar period that The Crown focuses on.

Naturally, there are risks to taking in your history alongside your entertainment. There’s only one take on offer and popular historical depictions very much tend to play to the mores of the time. The dark side of Britain’s colonial past has long been papered over in our popular culture. The boundary between popular history and propaganda can sometimes be fuzzy.

But to what extent is there ever such a thing as “pure” history, anyway? This is a theme eloquently explored by Mantel in this year’s Reith lectures. Confronting pupils with conflicting source material is one of the first lessons of grownup history: there is no one “true” interpretation of events. Historians may engage in an admirable search for the truth, but no historian can claim to present a neutral account: even if they stick to bone-dry facts corroborated by multiple sources, picking which ones to use is in itself interpretation.

Mantel argues that historical novelists have a different responsibility to the truth than historians: readers understand that a novel based on real events featuring real people will deploy creative speculation to fill in the gaps. But she counsels that even novelists should pay heed to the truth in so far as it can be established. “Don’t lie, don’t go against known facts,” she warns. For Mantel, this is important because it improves the story. “The reason you must stick by the truth is that it is better, stranger, stronger, than anything you can make up.”

But in depicting real events of the past, artists also have a responsibility to tell the truth because popular culture is how so many of us learn about history. And it’s here that The Crown overstepped the mark. I was comfortable with creator Peter Morgan’s speculation about the inner workings of the Queen’s mind given the dearth of source material. But I felt a bit cheated that he chose to fabricate quite so much about historical events.

The series is flush with examples, but two periods in particular stood out. In an episode about a 1961 presidential visit to Buckingham Palace, The Crown depicts Jackie Kennedy making disparaging comments about the Queen that quickly get back to her. It is this that spurs the Queen to fly to Ghana to convince President Nkrumah to stay in the Commonwealth, pulling off a diplomatic tour de force. Jackie Kennedy later requests an audience with the Queen in which she apologises profusely for her comments, although not before a mean JFK half-congratulates, half-berates his wife for changing the course of history.

According to the historian Hugo Vickers, while there is some evidence that Jackie Kennedy’s perceptions of the Queen were not wholly positive, most of this account, including the link to the Ghana visit, was made up.

Another poignant episode centres on Prince Philip’s decision to send Prince Charles to Gordonstoun, juxtaposing Charles’s miserable first few months there with flashbacks to Philip’s time at the school. It depicts the death of Philip’s beloved sister, Cecilie, in a plane crash, followed by his father subsequently blaming him for her death because she was on the flight as an indirect result of Philip acting up at school. But in reality, Cecilie had always planned to be on that particular flight.

These also happened to be my two favourite episodes, but I’m not sure a similar dramatic effect couldn’t have been achieved without all that fabrication. It went way beyond the creative speculation we can reasonably expect from popular dramatisations, crossing the line into making up pure fiction about living people.

The Crown is far from the only culprit; there’s a plethora of films and box sets that make similar historical transgressions, including this year’s The Viceroy’s House, about the partition of India and Pakistan. I’ll continue to avidly consume popular history in 2018. But in this era of fake news, creators of dramas such as The Crown have more of a responsibility to the truth than they seem to realise.


Sonia Sodha

The GuardianTramp

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