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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.