Too Many Old Queens: Fact VS Fiction


How do you make the the great stories of history relevant for a modern audience?

It’s a question vexing many a writer and filmmaker. A cycle of historical films occurred some 40 years ago, with the huge success of the TV series ‘I, Claudius’ with Derek Jacobi, ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’, starring Keith Michell, ‘Elizabeth R’ with Glenda Jackson and ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ with Vanessa Redgrave and Jackson.

History on film was usually played straight – big castles, authentic costumes, long speeches – but angry new revisions had changed the playing field. ‘How I Won The War’ and ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ presented WWI as absurdist satire, and ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ (preferable to the Errol Flynn travesty) stripped away heroics to reveal the incompetence of generals. It was the first time someone had dumped traditional schoolbooks to get to the previously-censored truth, and it came as a shock – especially as in my school you were likely to open your history book and find it had been taken out by boys in the 19th century.

But in the fake-news year of 2019, how are we to present the past so that it chimes with a younger, more cynical audience who already expect incompetence and lies? One way is to ignore factual accuracy and go for a kind of general assonance, as the TV show ‘Taboo’ did. The Tom Hardy starrer about the East India Company was shamelessly lurid and made no attempt to reproduce period language, but injected earth and salt into modern speech with impressive results. It felt right.

Another way is to provide a modern parallel through which we can see echoes of our own time. The political machinations of Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ can be understood in terms of present day government – although to find a parallel to Trump we’d have to go back to Caligula.

But in the process of making drama, inconvenient facts sometimes have to be ignored. The book ‘Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies’ points out that key truths were removed from Peter Weir’s film ‘Gallipoli’, which has a British general refusing to call off the attack when in fact it was an Australian officer who made the decision. And by failing to explain the purpose of the battle, its context or even location, it pushes its message (the futility of the Great War) at the expense of accuracy. Let’s not even go to Mel Gibson’s ‘Braveheart’, a travesty on every level.

Much has been made of the historical inaccuracy of ‘The Favourite’, which chronicles Queen Anne’s later years. The changes are indeed huge but the tone is correct. Peter Ackroyd writes that she was ‘cautious by temperament, never wholly trusting her own judgement or those of others,’ quoting Jonathan Swift’s observation that ‘there was not, perhaps in all England, a person who understood more artfully to disguise her passions.’ It’s this key that’s used to unlock her story, and putting her at the centre of a lesbian love triangle is simply a way of ramping up the idea of court favouritism and taking it to a logical conclusion.

At the other end of the spectrum, the remake of ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ with Saoirse Ronan is more awkwardly revisionist, filtering the power struggle between Elizabeth R and Mary through the filter of male manipulation and manufacturing a meeting between the two queens that never happened (as its earlier version did). More damagingly, it fails to provide a reason why we should care. Where ‘The Favourite’ provides a relatable heroine of sorts in Emma Stone, ‘Mary’ expects us to follow the royal retinues as they strut about in London and Holyrood House, arguing ways through their power plays.

It tries to make this relevant by dropping in anachronisms, playing to the ‘woke’ demographic it seeks to capture and including a trans character who is accepted without question. In ‘The Favourite’ there’s a strangeness that makes the past another country. In ‘Mary’ there’s doubt that we’re in the past at all. We’re possible at the Donmar, from whence the director hails, playing to a Guardianista audience. According to critic Nicholas Barber, ‘Even Ronan can’t save over-written dialogue that includes such tongue-twisters as, “If God wills Mary to marry, Mary will marry only whom Mary wills to marry.”

Possibly the greatest portrayal of Elizabeth I on screen comes from Quentin Crisp in delightful ‘Orlando’. The Naked Civil Servant gives the venerable queen a sinister, supernatural stateliness that the others miss. So, historical veracity or tonal assonance? You decide.

21 comments on “Too Many Old Queens: Fact VS Fiction”

  1. Stephen says:

    I don’t think it matters. We, as the consumers of movies eor tv shows, have to ask ourselves what the director is trying to say. Why was this movie made?
    There is no “straight history.” Our understanding of the past changes. This is the field of the philosophy of history: who and what we study to determine what history is. Portraying castles, costumes and speeches is just as valid as Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

  2. Alan Morgan says:

    Absolutely for Crisp as Elizabeth.

  3. snowy says:

    Until I read the words closely I was intrigued to know what could possibly connect Tim Curry and a Sontaran.

  4. Brooke says:

    The Favorite–or why I no longer bother with cinema. The emphasis is always fashionable stereotypes, i.e. royal sexuality, with eye on sales/audience. Period dramas are notorious for lack of veracity–often with serious consequences. Why try to engage audiences in context and veracity–religious dissent, Union question, Whig vs Tory politics, and European war, all relevant to our times. Sly sex is much easier. Indeed the director of Favorite brags about not doing research. Queen Anne was popular, engaged with her government, and trying to balance difficult issues; her reign deserves better.

    Ronan’s Mary is from Schiller and Italian operas–Romanticism’s view of women. Yuk.

    Historical veracity or tonal assurance? Are they mutually exclusive? Are these our only options?

  5. admin says:

    ‘Orlando’ strikes history a glancing blow – probably my favourite period piece.

  6. Trace Turner says:

    How can we expect historical veracity on film when we can’t get any kind of truth about what is happening today? IS Trump a great president or a cheap crook? Is Brexit good for Britain or bad, or indeed even going to happen?My vote is for a film that tries for accuracy but achieves the right tone. Not that everyone will agree on what the right tone is.
    Loved Orlando and Quentin Crisp. Might be time to watch it again…

  7. Helen Martin says:

    I’m always for accuracy even though you’re talking about real life, which is much messier and focus-less than any author’s creation. Things have to be omitted if there is to be any point to a production, but you can’t omit things which everyone thinks of as chief elements – the bombing of Hiroshima in a film about the war in the Pacific for example – or the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the first quarter of the 20th century there was a whole collection of books by GA Henty: With Wolf at Quebec and so on. These had a fictional lead character who found himself (always a young man) taking part in great historical events, usually battles. Other than this character Henty tried to provide “painless history” and they were fun reading to me even in the fifties. (I don’t think they were ever filmed, I wonder why not.)
    What you have to actually change: 18th century English upper class accents because modern viewers won’t stand it unless it’s Sir Percy in The Scarlet Pimpernel, the total control of the world by males (women want to see themselves as more than drudges, mistresses, or ladies of the manor even if the the more is so very unlikely and/or rare), inconvenient facts that don’t change anything (“he was there in October, not August”) and so on.
    Assonance (ha, ha, Snowy) The viewer has to feel comfortable with the language but also be aware of a time difference which often makes for different thought processes. The same goes for costuming and action. In some periods upper class clothing was ugly and uncomfortable, especially for women. The wide panniers of the 18th century reached the ridiculous level and actresses are certainly not going to try managing something you can’t take through a doorway if they can possibly avoid it.
    This is too long so I’m stopping here.

  8. Paul Graham says:

    The 70s epic Cromwell, with Richard Harris plays fast and loose with the civil war. However, it feels right. It conveys the disparity, between the royalists and roundheads, Charles’ yearning for absolutism. And the final scene of Cromwell’s rant in Parliament, stands out (especially now). All topped with the irony of the lead role played by an Irishman. Print the legend if you want to tell a story, write a documentary if you want to tell the truth.

  9. Karen says:

    Brooke , how can an American possibly give any worthy judgement of history! Silly really.

  10. Roger says:

    ” The Tom Hardy starrer about the East India Company was shamelessly lurid and made no attempt to reproduce period language, but injected earth and salt into modern speech with impressive results. It felt right.”

    That was the great virtue of George MacDonald Fraser’s best novels. He used period language to depict period beliefs and assumptions.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    It’s just like the American movies that suggest that everything in WW2 after 7/12/41 was done by them. The re-writing of history for those movies was boring and stupid, as people watched them just to say: “Didn’t happen. Didn’t happen. Didn’t happen.” No, we would not have won if it had not been for their men, money, manufacturing, and materiel. But there weren’t lots of them flying in the Battle Of Britain, as a fairly recent movie would have you believe. They did not have an ENIGMA machine before Britain did. If they had accepted the offer of ‘Funnies’ from the 79th Armoured Division on D-Day, then they just might not have been pinned down on the beach, being shredded by the German defences. And yes, they did have Sherman M4 ‘Duplex Drive’ swimming tanks, which sank, but only because they launched them too far out in the channel. And they most certainly didn’t win the battles in the Western Desert, in the early part of the war, as some movies would have you believe. It’s not a new thing, though – my dad was always amused by a movie, where a character, in a chariot, points off scene, and pronounces: “Thars Rome!”. And don’t get me started on John Wayne, as Genghis Khan, in ‘The Conqueror’: although it had tragic repercussions – to make the studio shots match the location ones, tons of sand, rocks, and soil were brought on to the sets. It looked very convincing… but it had been brought in from an area of desert which had been used as an atomic weapons test site. And the cast and crew who worked for months on this soil? I’ll leave it to you to guess what happened in the following years. It’s not a happy ending.

  12. Peter Tromans says:

    Personal matters do impact history. If William and Mary had not both been gay, would they have had children and … ? Perhaps more significantly, if Mary had not had a crush on Sarah Churchill, would her soldier husband, John Churchill have been promoted to conduct the war with France in place of the less than competent William? The Netherlands would most likely have been conquered by France and the Churchill dynasty would not have existed.

    Roger – I’m of the opinion that George MacDonald Fraser is probably the most effective history teacher ever: satire and humour all in the context of the time.

  13. Eliz Amber says:

    Re: Ian Luck’s comment – that’s how history is taught in the US. (Actually, we spend precious little time on the 20th century because the bloody Pilgrims take up an inordinate share of classroom time. The British counterpart is the bloody Romans. When I had British history at school in Britain, we spent so much time on the Roman era, we barely got to Victoria and rushed through the world wars in about a week.)

    I’ve become quite fascinated with the phoney war and the Blitz, myself. (In fact, that’s how I stumbled over Bryant and May – talk about authorial licence, Arthur!) I understand efforts to view the Blitz in a more accurate way, but I don’t think it’s entirely over-the-top to portray it as Britain’s ‘Finest Hour’. Churchill was absolutely correct in his prediction that ‘If we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.’

  14. snowy says:

    Eliz, if you are particularly interested in that period, you might enjoy the first half of “Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” by Giles Milton. The history of a group of people best described as talented eccentrics, [whose worst excesses were generally kept in check by a very bright and able young woman].

    Their work frequently upset the rather Blimp-like Military establishment, the ‘Castrator’, a small explosive device designed to be attached to the underside of a lavatory seat, [detonating when the unfortunate occupant sat down], was viewed with particular odium. The 140 ton burrowing tank met with more approval, [it may have been the explosive warheads that swung that]. But their most succesful invention may have had the unintended side effect, of producing a sudden spike in the birth rate.

    [Those familiar with the work of Percy Hobart, might find much of interest within the pages, including the time they nearly decapitated General DeGaulle.]

  15. Martin Tolley says:

    Eliz A
    In my day it was the bloody Tudors and Stuarts, but taught so badly I don’t recall it well. There was a veeeeery boring bloke with a beard who had a fairly odd (with my more adult understanding, probably a bit of a fetish) obsession with Mary QoS. He could have been the twin of Jeremy Corbyn.

  16. Brooke says:

    @Peter T: Personal matters do indeed impact politics and history. It’s one reason for the Act of Settlement. Which brings us to Whig/Tory politics. From what I’ve read, both sides were well aware of the Churchill’s use of Anne to promote their fortunes and each side manipulated the situation. The backlash led to Tory victory and ultimate exile of the very rich Marlborough. One might argue that these “personal matters” hastened the rise of Parliamentary democracy and transition from executive monarchy to a very diminished role.

    It’s an important to understand how and why parliamentary and congressional institutions arose; using public funds and taxing middle and working classes to feather your own bed and those of your friends should not be tolerated in either the 17th c or the 21st.

  17. Ian Luck says:

    Snowy – Giles Milton’s book is a great favourite of mine. Full of stuff that you just couldn’t make up. And it’s all true. I wouldn’t say that Sir Percy Hobart was a hero of mine – he was on the ‘Montgomery’ scale of oddness – but he certainly knew what was needed and why. I have been fascinated with ‘Hobart’s Funnies’ (a term, which of course, he detested with a passion), and made models of most of them. I saw a picture of a Churchill AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers), with it’s funny squat turret gun, in a book when I was about 11. It fascinated me to the point of distraction – tank guns were big and long, not short and squat. It couldn’t have been much good. Then I read another book that this gun was called a ‘Petard’, and fired a completely unaerodynamic shell, shaped like a dustbin with a tail, and weighing forty pounds into reinforced bunkers, demolishing them. Then I read another book which showed more of the 79th Armoured Division’s special gear: Bridgelayers, anti mine flail tanks, ‘Bobbin’ which laid reinforced canvas roadways over soft ground, ‘Crocodile’ a terrifying tank-mounted flamethrower, which projected ‘rods’ of napalm, to destroy pillboxes, etc. Heath Robinson would have felt justified seeing them.

  18. Wayne Mook says:

    I think first you have to ask is the film/tv programme any good; what is it trying to say & does it succeed. I prefer it to be truthful as much as possible, but the past is always being re-written by the living to fit their own view, so the feeling about the past changes. Alfred the Great has been re-written many times he seems almost mythical now.


  19. Helen Martin says:

    After that I’m going to have to find a copy of the Milton book. I’m currently reading Charles Stross’ The Merchant Princes series and finding the mixture of petards (always fun to meet after you’ve heard “hoist with one’s own ~”) and back packed nuclear devices extremely disturbing. (Economic science fiction – really?) It would be interesting to find out what was happening in the real world during my infancy.

  20. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – I believe that the original ‘Petard’ was a kind of lance, or spear. I also read somewhere that the word ‘Hoist’ in the saying, was originally the old word ‘Foist’, which I believe means something on the lines of ‘Defeated’. So, the saying means ‘Killed by your own weapon’. Saying that, I definitely would not have liked being on the ‘naughty end’ of a Royal Engineers Petard.

  21. John Griffin says:

    I always liked the veracity of ‘Jabberwocky’ myself.

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