Advice After the Fact: What Historical Advisors Do Best

Historical advisors make sure the era-specific details of television and film are portrayed authentically. Using Downton Abbey as a case study, we examine the various aspects they consider when recreating a time period.  

By Serena Ypelaar

The approach of fall, and later winter, inevitably means one thing: More time indoors = more television = more period dramas.

In mainstream media, historical television has gained traction in recent years, with shows like Downton Abbey, Peaky Blinders, Poldark, Mad Men, and The Crown gaining cult followings. As a historian, I love a good period drama, since watching a fictional recreation of an era is one of the best ways to learn about it. Of course, being a historian means I’m also hung up on accuracy.

Did you know there’s a specific job in which people ensure period dramas are accurate? Those magical people are called historical advisors.

Not every show has one, but I’d like to argue the importance of such a role. In the most miniscule ways, historical dramas give viewers a vivid impression of life in a specific era. The details simply provide a backdrop for the overarching narrative, but if incorrect, they undermine the story and realism of the series. I’ve highlighted five key elements a historical advisor must oversee to help interpret history for television and produce a credible period drama. In the interest of time, all examples come from Downton Abbey, whose historical advisor Alastair Bruce has spoken publicly about his role.

downton
Ensemble cast of Downton Abbey, in Season 1 promotional image. From left: Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Siobhan Finneran, Lesley Nicol, Sophie McShera, Rose Leslie, Thomas Howes, Brendan Coyle, Joanne Froggatt, Rob James-Collier, Dan Stevens, Dame Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Penelope Wilton, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Jessica Brown Findlay. Photo: Flickr

Setting, set design, and technology 

Set in Edwardian England, Downton Abbey follows the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in the eponymous great house. We’re treated with an (albeit rose-tinted) illustration of British society and its evolution from 1912 through 1926. It’s important that these shows capture setting in a way that transports viewers while avoiding anachronisms. Sets must be dressed with care, including items such as telephones, musical instruments, and furniture to highlight technological advances of the time.

Costuming, dress codes, and wardrobe etiquette 

dressing
Downton Abbey capitalizes on portraying everyday aspects of life, such as dining or dressing, seen here. Source: Golden Globes

Perhaps the most universally enjoyed element of historical drama is the fashion. Historical advisors should ideally work with costume designers for accuracy, since clothing leaves a lasting overall impression. In an upstairs-downstairs series like Downton, the frequent act of the staff dressing their employers demonstrates how garments were worn. Alastair Bruce famously intervened in a scene in which newspaper man Sir Richard Carlisle shakes hands with Cora Crawley with his glove on. According to Bruce, gentlemen would always remove a glove before shaking hands.

Mannerisms, accents, and speech

Downton Abbey is located in Yorkshire, but you won’t hear the upper-crust Crawleys speaking with northern accents. Actress Michelle Dockery, who normally speaks with an Essex accent, had to adopt a measured drawl to convincingly play the aloof Lady Mary. Conversely, you’ll find the belowstairs staff using coarser dialects. Historical advisors must ensure consistency as well as monitor word choice in scripts, as some words weren’t commonly used yet. Physical mannerisms likewise illustrate character; the Crawleys and their peers would walk rigidly upright while the working class characters have a different gait, especially when relaxing “off-duty”. These details may seem insignificant to viewers, but when employed they can help teach us the nuances of how our forebears lived.

PBS_Alastair_Bruce
Downton Abbey’s historical advisor, Alastair Bruce. Source: Downton Abbey Wiki

Gender, race, sexual orientation, and class politics

Often, dynamics between people from different stations in life drive the tension in period dramas. Any good period drama will highlight change, usually in the form of innovation, social causes, and cultural shifts. It’s essential that historical advisors allow writers to capitalize on these changes without sacrificing legitimacy. In a series like Downton Abbey, where men and women of varying status and motivations interact in a large house, there are specific protocols which historically would have been followed – and which Alastair Bruce had to emphasize during filming.

Society, nationalism, trends, and overarching historical context

The wider historical backdrop is the linchpin. It shapes the characters’ outlook, values, and knowledge (How do they understand the world? What has happened at this point, and what is yet to come? Are they racist? Probably). National context, such as British sentiment during World War I, was crucial to understand while writing Downton. This is one area I feel Bruce and writer Julian Fellowes falter – not in the overall context, but in the mindsets of their characters. The Crawleys are astonishingly progressive for conservative landowners; certain characters exhibit a surprising lack of prejudice, which at times breaks the carefully crafted personas from their vantage point of a hundred years ago. Nevertheless, the motivation was undoubtedly to foster empathy, which in a television series is understandable.

thomas and the crawleys
So we’re supposed to believe that these wealthy conservative Britons living a hundred years before us have the same tolerant sensibilities of our time? Oooookay (but we love the outfits so we’ll suspend our disbelief, am I right?) Source: The Daily Mail

With prior knowledge of Fellowes’ planned storylines before each season, Bruce conducted preliminary research using specific case studies – in this case, country houses in England – to determine the aspects of life in a country estate like the fictional Downton Abbey. He then advised on the finer elements of the story’s execution.

As someone who writes historical fiction, I can relate. I’ve always found the storyline to be the core of a project – the steering wheel, so to speak – while the research, the actual historical facts, are the engine. The creator is the driver. In period television, the writer and historical advisor must copilot the vehicle if they are to arrive smoothly at their destination: a polished, realistic period drama that will appeal to laymen and historians alike.* Granted, Downton Abbey is certainly not without its critics (myself included when it comes to the later seasons), but the showrunners’ meticulous attention to detail does it credit.

*Fans of Downton Abbey will hopefully forgive me for my tactless use of a car metaphor – it just came to me as I went. Trust me, I know it’s a sore spot, as I myself haven’t quite gotten over The Incident from the 2012 Christmas special…

2 thoughts on “Advice After the Fact: What Historical Advisors Do Best

  1. This is a really fascinating job and I’ve loved hearing Bruce’s comments on his work. Something I’ve always been interested in, perhaps only slightly related to this, is when linguists are consulted for shows to create languages. I think they can also assist with the accents as you’ve mentioned here but I know for shows like Game of Thrones and the latest Superman movie, they’ve created new languages for these worlds. I suppose they would still try to use cues from the world’s culture in creating a realistic and suitable language, though it’s likely quite a different process from that of historical advisors

    Like

    1. Definitely! I had never even thought about linguists creating languages for stories, but that’s an amazing idea to bring up! I’ve always admired the great pains creators take in the fantasy/sci-fi genres to build worlds, and actually going so far as to create languages (other notable examples are Star Trek and Lord of the Rings) is very impressive. Just goes to show how interpretation has many layers! Thanks for reading 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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