Mannerisms Maketh Man

Casting choices can define the outcome of historical adaptations. When it comes to issues of appearance and performance, there’s a fine balance in achieving a convincing performance – which factors should be prioritized for authenticity?

By Daniel Rose & Serena Ypelaar

The Mindful Rambler was always going to feature dialogue posts – it was just a matter of time. And now here we are! This article was born halfway into a deep discussion the two of us were having about historical casting choices. Do actors need to look like their historical counterparts to convince an audience, or is it the performance that matters most? We each had some interesting – and mostly opposing – views, and you can read our discussion below. 

SVY: To get straight into our standpoints on this issue, I’ll come right out and say that while performance obviously matters to me, appearance matters just as much, if not more. I’m a very visual learner and I like to be fully absorbed into an adaptation – if an actor doesn’t really look like the person they’re meant to be portraying, I have trouble buying in. It places a bit of a barrier between myself and the film/show. But I know you have a fascinating and absolutely valid perspective on this topic too. 

DR: For the longest time, I shared the belief that actors should physically resemble the historic figures they have been cast to play. This changed with Frank Langella’s fantastic performance as former President Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon (2008). Even though Langella did not particularly look like Nixon, his uncanny portrayal of Nixon’s mannerisms and way of speaking was astonishingly accurate. As a viewer, I felt transported to 1977, with Langella’s performance pulling back the curtain on a person and period that I did not live through. To me, an actor’s ability to convey the intricacies of a figure’s mindset and historical context is just as important as “looking” the part when it comes to selling the viewer on an historic piece.  

Frank Langella (left) as Richard Nixon (right) in Frost/Nixon. Photo: Pinterest

SVY: For sure, I agree that without mannerisms and attention to detail, so much of the person’s essence is lost. I think it’s a fine balance – if an actor doesn’t already look like their subject, makeup is now so sophisticated that a lack of resemblance can be easily remedied. For instance, Christian Bale was transformed completely into Dick Cheney in VICE (2018). Some say heavy prosthetics hamper performance, and the same can be said for screenwriting: if a screenplay does a feeble job of interpreting a real-life person’s temperament, it might not always translate on-screen depending on what the actor has to work with. For instance, I previously wrote about Zac Efron’s uncanny casting as serial killer Ted Bundy; Efron’s performance was excellent but the script was weak. With many variables in historical adaptation and the complexity of human personalities, it’s challenging to get right. But viewing is a passive activity, so it can help when much of the interpretive work is done for me. How do you look past outward appearances when you’re watching things? 

Amy Adams and Christian Bale as Lynne and Dick Cheney in VICE. Photo: Through the Silver Screen

DR: I think you raise some good points – Bale’s transformation in VICE was astonishing, I’ll admit. That said, when I watch a movie about a real-life figure, or even any old period piece, I consider more than just how one character looks. Ideally, the setting and costumes paint a picture (pun intended) of the aesthetic of a time period. By including tiny details such as fashion choices and products that have since been discontinued, films draw on memories and shared experiences on a subconscious level. By creating an environment that “feels” familiar, the viewer is transported into a world that does not reflect the current era. A great example is the film First Man (2018), starring Ryan Gosling. The camera spends a great deal of time showcasing “space age” technology, including analog dials on flat steel machines, alongside more mainstream 1960’s design choices, such as wood panelling and garish wallpaper. I could almost feel some of the costumes through the screen, as actors eschewed polyester blend for scratchy wool and one-hundred percent cotton. I honestly could not tell you if any of the actors resembled the real-life Apollo 11 crew – but I was utterly convinced by how the film framed them. 

Colin Firth (left) and Jared Harris (right) respectively, both as King George VI. Photo: Slate

SVY: That’s worth noting too. Our familiarity with the figure being portrayed will influence our convictions in terms of whether the likeness and portrayal seems authentic. I’ll now bring in an example of a key struggle I face when I’ve seen a lot of pictures and/or constructed an aura of a historical figure in my mind. There have been a couple of portrayals of King George VI lately, in The King’s Speech (2010) and television series The Crown (2016-). Both actors, Colin Firth and Jared Harris respectively, look nothing like the late British monarch. Both conveyed aspects of his character through their performance, but to me their visual appearance separates me from complete absorption in the portrayal because I know irrevocably how Bertie actually looked. Similarly, I’ve delved so far into Jane Austen’s biography and world that seeing Anne Hathaway play her in Becoming Jane (2007) seemed a bit beyond belief. I can definitely still enjoy a production on these occasions, but I just can’t fully embrace the actor as a true embodiment of the figure. Perhaps it’s because I’m a highly visual learner, but something holds me back!

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen in Becoming Jane. Photo: Film Affinity

DR: I think we’ve identified some ways in which an actor looking or not looking like an historic figure can either help or hinder an audience member’s engagement with the subject matter. Regarding my stance, I want to echo the sentiments of Chernobyl (2019) stars Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård. Flummoxed that they were cast to play figures they bore no resemblance to, both actors concluded that stripping the focus away from physical similarities allowed director Johan Renck to hire performers whose talents could help construct a portrait of life as it was in the Soviet Union. The success of the series changed my entire perspective, and allowed me to re-evaluate how other historic films draw the viewer into the paradigm on display. All that said, as someone who agreed with you until recently, Serena, I respect your position!

SVY: Same to you, Dan! It’s been fun bandying about, and I can definitely say that while I’m attached to the idea of resemblance, I do agree that poor acting is by no means a satisfactory trade-off for the elusive goal of physical likeness. In terms of historical interpretation, I’m looking forward to seeing what Hollywood does next so we can keep discussing these principles.

Kindness Among the Unkind: Penny Dreadful and the Art of Adaptation

Showtime’s short-lived horror drama Penny Dreadful embodied the very best of Victorian Gothic. The show’s investment in literature proves that the best adaptations are unafraid to honour their origins. 

By Adriana Wiszniewska

As we discussed earlier this month, the Victorians were much more than their stodgy reputation leads us to believe. Victorian society was slippery and grey, invested as much in the supernatural as the natural. It was, after all, a time of great upheaval. And out of that shadowy underlife emerged some of the most iconic Gothic monsters.

Do you believe there is a demimonde, Mr. Chandler? A half-world between what we know and what we fear? A place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt?

Penny Dreadful, “Night Work” (1×01)

While Gothic literature had its heyday in the late eighteenth century, the genre underwent a massive resurgence in the Victorian era. The old forms of eighteenth-century Gothic were updated to reflect the anxieties of a society teetering on the edge of modernity. It’s remarkable just how many Gothic novels were published in the final decades of the nineteenth century, including classics like Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898).

Among this slew of new horror fiction were penny dreadfuls, cheap, sensational, serialized stories that were looked down upon not just for their lurid subject matter but also for their mass popularity. Which brings me to Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), a TV series that took its inspiration from all of the above.

Episode 101
Eva Green is mesmerizing as Penny Dreadful‘s Vanessa Ives. If there’s one reason for you to watch this show, it’s Eva Green. Photo: IMDb

Written and created by John Logan (who also wrote the play Red), Penny Dreadful takes the monster-parts of classic Gothic literature, from Dracula to Dorian Gray to Frankenstein, and stitches them together into one exquisite tapestry of postmodern beauty and terror, blurring the edge between the lurid grotesque of pop culture and the high-minded literary aspirations of high art.

Penny Dreadful wears its literary influences on its puffy Victorian sleeve, shamelessly flaunting its literariness at every step. While most obviously shaped by nineteenth-century Gothic, the show is also knee-deep in Romantic poetry.

sadpoetry
She’s not wrong. Sad monsters too, apparently. Photo: Tumblr

In Penny Dreadful, two strangers can casually recite the same poem to each other from memory like it’s nothing. Victor Frankenstein, in seeking a name for his creation, reaches not for the Bible but for Shakespeare, because “theological connotations aren’t very ‘us’, are they?”

The same could be said of Penny Dreadful. In a world of vampires, werewolves, and witches—a world of senseless death and cruelty—existence seems devoid of the divinity and order that the Romantics saw in nature. As Frankenstein’s monster puts it:

I am not a creation of the antique pastoral world. I am modernity personified. Did you not know that’s what you were creating? The modern age? Did you really imagine that your modern creation would hold to the values of Keats and Wordsworth? We are men of iron and mechanization now. We are steam engines and turbines. Were you really so naive to imagine that we’d see eternity in a daffodil?

Penny Dreadful, “Resurrection” (1×03)

The Gothic is the dark underside of Romanticism, anticipating the bloody monstrous mechanized world that Penny Dreadful knows has already arrived and still haunts us to this day. But the show’s investment in poetry, in beauty and love and kindness among the unkind, shows that there are ways to hold back the dark, even if just for a moment.

That’s why all monsters in Penny Dreadful are secretly poets, the Creature perhaps most of all. Just as his creator reached for Shakespeare, the Creature renames himself John Clare after the poet of the same name  in an attempt to shed his monstrous past. And in the cavernous dark beneath London (a place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt), Clare finds kinship with Vanessa Ives, another damaged person who dwells in the halfway place between light and dark (Vanessa, notably an original creation, is the glue that holds the show together). She looks at his scarred face with warmth and the two trade soft words and lines of poetry:

The characters of Penny Dreadful speak in and through literature, finding solace in poetry when the world offers them only pain and loss and darkness. This is a story about monsters—the scary, bloodsucking, evil monsters, of course. But also the sad, lonely, misunderstood monsters—the broken things—the kind of monsters that shed light on what it means to be human and, conversely, what it means to be cast out from humanity.

Stories make up Penny Dreadful‘s blood and bones. Its characters use literary texts to define themselves, to narrate their lives, to make sense of the world around them. They themselves are texts, living and breathing and endlessly generative. That’s what makes literature so powerful to begin with, and Penny Dreadful understands that better than any show on television.

“Containing the Spread of Misinformation”: “Chernobyl” and Historic Truth

Fresh off the series’ Emmy win for Outstanding Limited Series, we take a look at how HBO’s Chernobyl makes us reconsider how we think about “The Truth”.

By Daniel Rose

Growing up in the shadow of American media has given me a stilted view of Russian and Soviet history.  From the patriotic cheese of “Rocky IV” to the tales of espionage and intrigue in “The Hunt for Red October”, we have been led to believe that Eastern Europe is the homeland of villains who are dastardly at best and incompetent at worst. Today, some people still believe that the fall of the Soviet Union was the inevitable victory of the “good guys” from the West over the “bad guys” from the East, a gross oversimplification that some media is still eager to support. The tenuous relationship that exists between Western depictions of the Soviet Union and the reality of life in Eastern Europe’s communist bloc is what makes HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries so refreshing.    

Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) coordinate cleanup at Chernobyl.
Photo: IndieWire

“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”

Jared Harris as Valery Legasov in “Chernobyl”

Set between April 26, 1986 and April 27, 1987, Chernobyl follows events set in motion immediately following the explosion of reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat (now in modern-day Ukraine). The disaster, which exposed hundreds of thousands of people in Eastern Europe to frightening levels of radiation, is framed in a way that balances the truth of the incident with the portrayal of the explosion in Soviet media. Rather than presenting the subject matter in a fully-realized, academic light, the series only provides viewers with as much information as characters on-screen have access to at any particular moment. When plant engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) remarks that the level of radiation in the aftermath of the explosion, 3.6 roentgen, is “not great, not terrible”, we are not immediately given context as to what roentgen measures (the exposure of x-rays and gamma rays) or what would constitute an alarming measurement. Even the soundtrack, which maintains a constant sense of unease throughout the six-episode miniseries, leaves the viewer in the dark as to when misfortune will appear on-screen.

The narrative structure adopted in Chernobyl mirrors the cultural climate in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. After decades of extreme government censorship of the press, the Soviet Union adopted a policy of openness or “glasnost” as part of a larger restructuring, collectively known as “perestroika”, aimed at maintaining parity with the West. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, however, Soviet media repeatedly under-reported the damage and risk of exposure to radiation, even as Western scientists as far away as Scandinavia reported alarming levels entering the atmosphere. In Chernobyl, viewers are reassured by characters that the situation is under control, contrary to the scenes of fire and destruction on display. It isn’t until later in the series, when expert scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) is introduced, that the scale and impact of damage becomes apparent to the viewer.

What sets Chernobyl apart from other historical dramas is the effort to capture the Soviet Union in this brief moment as accurately as possible. In particular, Chernobyl‘s cinematography does a masterful job at showcasing the cost of the cleanup in contrast to the measured takes of its characters. The portrayal of radiation poisoning turns the viewers’ stomachs, with the camera lingering long enough on victims to evoke sympathy as well as horror. The effort goes beyond the actual series, with the writers collaborating on a podcast that explores each scene in every episode to give viewers insight as to how some events are framed. The filmmakers are open about any inaccuracies in the series, including the fictional character Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a composite of the many scientists who contributed to the cleanup.

Chernobyl is an eerily accurate representation of a long-changed era. The miniseries does a phenomenal job of placing the viewer in the action, equipping those of us who grew up after the fall of the Berlin Wall with the tools to understand why people acted and thought the way they did in 1986. Outside of time travel, Chernobyl is the closest people can get to life in the Soviet Union.

Fly Me to the Moon … Wait, Didn’t We Do That Already?

Humans first landed on the Moon 50 years ago, but some people still refuse to believe it happened. Moon hoax conspiracy theories prove that interpretation is a highly subjective practice regardless of the evidence.

By Serena Ypelaar

Can you believe we are 50 years out from the first Moon landing? That’s right: on July 20, 1969, humans set foot on the Moon for the first time in history. 

Baby boomers and their parents might remember watching the footage of the Apollo 11 mission on television, which was a critical medium for broadcasting the American feat to the entire world. The context of the Moon landing as a Cold War accomplishment, especially in the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union, makes the phenomenon of the Moon landing broadcast even more significant.

Those who were alive back then saw it – but not everyone believes. It may seem bizarre since the fact that humans have landed on the Moon is generally established today, but there are still people out there who think it never happened – that the entire Apollo program was a hoax, a lie fabricated by NASA using television as an aid to their deceit. 

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, as photographed by Neil Armstrong on the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. Photo: Wikipedia

How can a conspiracy theory (or theories, as there are many variations of the argument that the Moon landing didn’t actually happen) survive for 50 years, seemingly in defiance of logic?

I’ve been thinking about it, and I think it comes down to the way evidence is interpreted. Any given piece of evidence – whether it be presented visually, aurally or otherwise – can either be accepted as part of a coherent narrative or rejected as incredible. Conspiracy theories come from those who refuse to accept the mainstream narrative, in this case that the first Moon landing happened on July 20, 1969, because they question the veracity of the evidence. 

People are still fascinated by the footage of the Moon landing, from preparation to takeoff to landing. CNN has been airing the documentary Apollo 11, directed by Todd Douglas Miller and featuring “rare and never-before-seen large-format film footage”. The film itself is also an interpretation of the event, since creating it involved selecting and editing clips to tell the story in a way that is understandable for mass consumption. And yet, the compendium of Moon landing footage out there is not convincing enough for conspiracists, who claim it’s part of a massive hoax. 

From the assertion that NASA roped in Stanley Kubrick to direct film footage of a faked Moon landing to the belief that up to 400,000 personnel helped develop and release the alleged false narrative over 10 years, all of the conspiracy theories are wildly imaginative and also cannot possibly coexist, therefore undermining the credibility of each one. 

The nature of conspiracy theories is to interpret pieces of tangible evidence or content through a specific lens or argument, which could be motivated by confirmation bias or another fallacy of logic that involves distorting or discrediting evidence to make it suit an alternative story. In the case of the Moon landing hoax conspiracies, people assert that evidence of the Moon landings, most notably footage, is faulty, and because it is (in their opinion) faulty, it must be fabricated. 

There’s an entire list of supposed issues with NASA’s Moon landing, issues which have been cited in conspiracies but have since been refuted by scientists. But if pointing out flaws in the footage was the main ammunition of the conspiracists, do they then suggest that reality must be perfect and errors indicate fabrication? The logical reasoning is hard to follow, and yet conspiracists are inclined to occupy their minds with a kind of subversive interpretive technique in order to pursue the established history. 

Still from “Le Voyage Dans La Lune” / “A Trip to the Moon”, the 1902 film by Georges Méliès that fascinated the world. Photo: Wikipedia

What does this mean in the greater scheme of history and conspiracy theories? I’d bet money they will continue to thrive as long as there’s someone to tout them and someone else to buy in. And by all means, it’s important and valuable to question the prevalent perspectives of history and who preserves those narratives in the first place. But at the heart of conspiracy theory is a delight, I think, in observing that which others have not observed, and believing in a secret truth that others can’t hope to access unless they join in and enter this underground interpretative world.

As for me, I think I’d rather just enjoy the beauty and majesty of the Moon – at a comfortable distance. 

.

Looking for a concept album to celebrate the Moon landing? Try “Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino” by Arctic Monkeys – a record about a hotel on the Moon.

The Thing That Gets Us to the Thing

Technology connects us like never before. Halt and Catch Fire takes place during the computer boom that started it all, emphasizing the importance of human connection.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

When AMC released Halt and Catch Fire in 2014, people were quick to dismiss it as “Mad Men but in the 80s! With tech!” Now, it’s no secret that we love Mad Men here at the Rambler, but I think the comparisons did Halt and Catch Fire a disservice. The show remained criminally underrated and under-watched for four seasons, over which it grew into one of the most profoundly human shows on television.

HCF_S2_preseason
From left: Lee Pace, Mackenzie Davis, Kerry Bishé, and Scoot McNairy, stars of Halt and Catch Fire. Photo: AMC

It starts at an interesting moment in history: the 1980s, when computers are not yet ubiquitous but the industry is on the cusp of … something. We know, of course, just how important computers will become, that the tech industry will explode and eventually everyone will have computers not only in their homes but in their pockets. The characters in the middle of that history, however, remain in a constant struggle to get ahead of the curve, to create the thing that will change everything. A lot of period shows rely on this kind of dramatic irony, where viewers know what the characters don’t. We can’t reach through the screen and tell them that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs will beat them to the punch. But it’s fascinating to watch them keep trying anyway.

joe
Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) predicts the future. Photo: Giphy

Somewhere along the way, though, Halt and Catch Fire realized that the real draw was not seeing the slow birth of the Information Age, but the people at the heart of it. The dreamers and creators who so badly want to leave a mark and change the world and end up changing themselves in the process.

Joe MacMillan (the always amazing Lee Pace) starts off as a fairly typical male antihero akin to those that dominate prestige television—you know, Tony Soprano, Walter White, or, yeah, Don Draper. Joe is a visionary who manipulates, cheats, and talks his way into a fledgling Texas software company in order to transform it into a PC company to rival IBM. But the show quickly stopped trying to emulate other prestige dramas and Joe, rather than a villain or even an antihero, became the voice of the show’s underdog humanity. Joe sees what others don’t, that technology has the potential to change the way we interact with one another. So it’s fitting that Joe is the one to utter the words that could serve as Halt and Catch Fire’s thesis statement: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”

That thing, in my view, is connection. Throughout its run, Halt and Catch Fire consistently emphasizes that behind all those screens and wires and lines of code are human beings, desperately seeking connection in a world that is often forbidding. It’s no surprise that Joe, an openly bisexual man, would eventually want to build something that brings people together and lets them be who they really are.

MV5BMTU0NDQ0NTUwOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTQyNTA2OTE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1497,1000_AL_
Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) in Halt and Catch Fire. Photo: IMDb

It’s easy to be cynical about the Internet these days. But we forget that it can be a wonderful space for people to share their creativity and interests and connect with other people they might otherwise never meet. Over and over again, Halt and Catch Fire shows us that what matters is less the technology that connects us than it is the people who use it.

Pies Are Just Sweet Calzones

Considering that even pies can be understood in different ways, interpreting history can seem a lost cause. But it is having a multiplicity of voices that leads to a balanced historical narrative.

By Lilia Lockwood

In 1977, NASA launched the Golden Record into outer space aboard Voyagers 1 and 2. The two copies of the record had images and sounds of life on earth, including nature sounds, greetings in 55 languages, and music from different eras and cultures. This is easily the most ambitious time capsule, as it seeks to convey the entirety of human experience on our planet over millennia. We may never know if it reaches extraterrestrials, but it does raise another question: is it possible to capture a place and moment in time?

I’ve been thinking about this since watching an episode of one of my favourite television shows, Parks and Recreation. The satirical sitcom follows the trials and triumphs of determined public servant Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her team at the small-town parks and rec department of Pawnee, Indiana. Be warned: this blog post contains spoilers for season 3, episode 3. And gifs. Lots of gifs.

Andy-Dwyer-Shock
When you realize you can write about history AND Parks and Rec. Photo: Reaction Gifs

The premise for the episode is that Leslie has decided to make a time capsule that represents life in Pawnee. She soon finds, however, that there are different understandings of what exactly constitutes “life in Pawnee.” The episode starts with Jerry, one of the department’s employees, saying that he has brought his mother’s diaries to put in the time capsule. Leslie thinks this idea is perfect. Amen, Leslie! Discovering a historical diary of daily life is every historian’s dream.

Events take a turn when word gets out about the department’s time capsule project, bringing Pawnee citizen Mr. Kelly Larson to Leslie’s office. He demands that the book Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer, be included in the capsule. At first, Leslie is dead set against this. What, she wonders (as most viewers likely do), does a teen vampire romance have to do with Pawnee?

But then, Leslie has an epiphany:

iLd9glnvi5cJ

and his daughter reading that book
Photo: Gifglobe

Leslie thought the time capsule should include what are traditionally considered historical items, such as her book A brief history of everything that has ever happened since Pawnee was founded. But she realizes that each person is experiencing life in Pawnee differently, and the time capsule has to reflect that. She organizes a public forum to hear ideas for what additional items to add, where everyone starts arguing over suggestions. Twilight is too Christian! Twilight is not Christian enough!

pies are
There are always different perspectives to consider. Photo: Giphy

There aren’t necessarily right and wrong sides to these arguments (though of course extremes must be carefully weighed). Rather, considering many subjective accounts allows us to arrive at a closer approximation of objective reality.

grouchy ron
It is vital to acknowledge other points of view. Don’t follow Ron’s example. Photo: Gfycat

Ultimately, Leslie finds an elegant solution. The capsule will include everyone’s perspectives by preserving a video of the forum. As she has discovered, the only way to capture a place and moment in time is to include multiple voices in dialogue with each other. And the task of the historian is to seek those voices and make them heard.

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…