On and Off Script

The challenges of writing history for television are formidable. But if historians don’t get involved, they will cede ground to those less qualified, warns Suzannah Lipscomb.

It is scripting time again, the time of the year when, as well as my regular teaching and writing work, I am working on scripts for a new history documentary series: a collaborative endeavour involving me, my fellow historian-presenter, the director and executive producers, with occasional interventions from channel commissioners. The difficult process of constructing a workable script is made more so by the fact that it is a docudrama; the story is presented both through historians talking to camera and by a cinematic dramatisation of events. At the same time, I have historian friends working as consultants on big-budget dramas and, like everyone else, as winter draws in, I am a fan of the box set, often historical in scope. 

What I feel I have learnt from scripting, from chats with historical consultants and from what I view, is the fairly obvious lesson that drama – the dramatic needs of the viewer, such as urgency and pace, emotional empathy and storytelling – often pulls in different directions to history. The less obvious lesson is that to write a script for a history show, drama or documentary, is to be drawn into a philosophical discussion about what we can know of the past and how we can know it.

Working on a script often involves the correction of historical detail: that although Katherine of Aragon was Spanish, her hair was auburn not black; that the Tudors did not wear off-the-shoulder numbers; and, often, that things happened in a different order historically to events in the script, however much the storytelling would work if it were otherwise. These are frustrating but remediable. 

It is more complex to know how to respond to other suggestions: for example, not to introduce too many characters, so that the public can follow who everyone is, or to recreate a conversation that may not have happened, however much the sources imply it must have done, or to make word-based events visual. The signing of a treaty might be historically important but it is not great TV. There are only so many times an audience wants to watch a character write a letter, even if historians feel on firm ground with treaties and letters because they survive. Should dialogue lean more towards authenticity or intelligibility? How can one minimise cliché and hyperbole, while keeping people watching (in an age where everything is ‘iconic’ and ‘deadly’ and ‘never seen before’)? How does one reconcile the values of the past with our own, without falling into anachronism? 

Above all, there is the question of certainty. There is a limit to our knowledge of the past. Becoming a historian is all about learning what those limits are. It means knowing the sort of questions one can ask about the past and what the sources will not deliver. One colleague reports that he has been asked by scriptwriters – when objecting to an egregious departure from the historical record – ‘can you prove it didn’t happen?’ This is to take the historical method and invert it; the historian can be trampled underfoot by the elephantine weight of big money’s pursuit of compelling drama.

In dramatisations, certainty is tricky. Much of the time the mystery of studying the past comes from not knowing why people acted as they did. We can accumulate evidence, we can compare accounts, we can speculate,  but often we cannot actually know. Few people in the 16th century left accounts of why they acted as they did. Even when they did, people are often dishonest with themselves. We cannot necessarily say if two people were in love, or why a ruler showed mercy, or whether someone secretly harboured a deep hatred of an ostensible friend. We can only judge by a person’s actions. But actors playing historical characters can introduce certainty with a flash of their eyes – a look of lust or contempt or pity – and the case is suddenly all sewn up.

It boils down to this: audiences and profit determine that these programmes will be made. If historians decide it is all too difficult and cede the territory to the people who ask if you can prove something did not happen, then all hope of historical drama and documentaries having even a hint of the historical about them becomes faint. So, once more, into the breach … hand me that script and let’s pull some teeth.

Suzannah Lipscomb is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at New College of the Humanities.

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