How acceptable is artistic licence in history entertainment?

By Duncan Leatherdale
BBC News

Image source, Eleven Arches/Kynren
Image caption,
Kynren will run over the summer at Eleven Arches in Bishop Auckland

With 1,000 actors recreating 2,000 years of British history on a stage the size of five football pitches, Kynren lives up to its billing of being an epic production. But with false claims about Queen Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare, it raises the question of where the line should be drawn between accuracy and artistic licence in history-based entertainment.

The Kynren team has spent several years getting ready for this week, from writing a script and sourcing volunteer actors to transforming a former golf course on the banks of the River Wear in County Durham into an enormous arena.

It aims to tell 2,000 years of history and legend through the eyes of a boy called Arthur, from the arrival of the Romans and Vikings to the start of World War Two.

The £30m show, which has now opened on the outskirts of Bishop Auckland, certainly has some spectacular scenes, but among the horse-riders, animal parades and sword-fighting skirmishes there is a claim that William Shakespeare met Queen Elizabeth I at Auckland Castle, the palatial home of the Bishops of Durham which overlooks the Kynren site, in 1599.

It would be a fascinating fact - if it were true.

"The reference was made for artistic effect," a Kynren spokeswoman admitted.

"The story of Kynren is about Arthur encountering myth, legend and history, and the soundtrack of the show is about his dreams, so the reference can be attributed to this fact."

In short, in that instance artistic licence was favoured over historical accuracy.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
William Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I did not meet at Auckland Castle in 1599

Kynren is not the first historical drama to prioritise entertainment over fact and it certainly won't be the last, says Dr Christian O'Connell, a history academic at the University of Gloucestershire.

He says one of his favourite shows, The Tudors, was often criticised for deviating from historical evidence.

"It is fair for dramas and entertainment to take artistic licence but I think it should be made more evident to the viewer when that has been done," Dr O'Connell said.

"Dramas are entertainment and can introduce people to topics they knew nothing about.

Image source, Auckland Castle Trust
Image caption,
Auckland Castle is the historic home to the Bishop of Durham

"They simplify complex history and enable people to engage with a topic that might otherwise seem accessible only to academics.

"We then have documentaries to offer more evidence-based information on a subject."

However, dramas do have some responsibility too, especially when they are successful and drawing in large audiences, Dr O'Connell argues.

"There is an element of education about them, history is very important and shows do have a responsibility to be sensitive to the nuances of it."

But it does not matter, according to Terry Deary who has made a living presenting history in an entertaining way in his Horrible Histories series of books.

The author, who lives in County Durham, said history itself is a fabrication and quoted philosopher George Santayana who said: "History is a pack of lies about things that never happened told by people who weren't even there."

Image caption,
Terry Deary's Horrible Histories books were turned into an award-winning BBC TV show

"So many historians are charlatans who invent and distort the past," said Mr Deary.

"Kynren's aim is to entertain and, unlike the charlatans, they don't pretend to be historically accurate. Good luck to Kynren."

Though some historians will agree with Mr Deary, others most certainly will not.

"This issue has really divided the historical community," said author and historian Dr Tracy Borman.

"In the one camp are the purists who would say if you must do historical fiction then it must be based on the fact.

"Then there is the second camp, which I lean towards, which is history is always good and what's really important is to make people excited about history.

"You should not insult people's intelligence and think they are taking things as read, most people know the difference between fiction and fact and hopefully historical fiction is an inspiration to find out what really happened."

Image source, Kynren
Image caption,
Kynren portrayed Hamlet giving his "to be or not to be" soliloquy to a skull

Embellishments are acceptable so long as they serve a purpose, Dr Borman said.

"When I write historical fiction, where the known facts exist I go with that but the embellishments are made around the gaps, of which there are many.

"Where changes are made to the facts then they should be made for a good and justifiable reason; change for change's sake is irritating.

"Where I'm more supportive of embellishment is where we just do not know.

"Some of the great questions of history, such as was Queen Elizabeth I a virgin, are therefore fair game."

There is a balance to be achieved: while The Tudors might have tipped towards entertainment, 1970s series Elizabeth R is cited as being successful for the historical accuracy of the events it portrays.

Image source, Eleven Arches/Kynren
Image caption,
Kynren is played out on a stage the size of five football pitches on a former golf course beside the River Wear

"It is the only drama some purists like," said Dr Borman,

"It was undoubtedly based on facts - the script was almost made up of original documents - it was pretty much as accurate as you could be.

"I found it ponderous, quite tricky to watch; because it was so true to the facts it was a long series."

So has anything come close to being the perfect fusion of fact and fiction?

"I'm not sure you can ever please both camps but I think Wolf Hall has come the closest to it," Dr Borman said.

"Hilary Mantel did more research into Thomas Cromwell than probably many other Tudor historians, every detail she could find was included.

"And the BBC's adaptation was very good too, I think both the book and the series were exemplars of historical fiction done properly."

Wolf Hall is also a good example of filling in the gaps between historical evidence said Dr O'Connell.

"Hilary Mantel did a lot of research on evidence from that time and about that subject but then she has put thoughts and feelings into the character of Thomas Cromwell which you would not have been able to find from those documents."

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is an exemplar of getting the balance between and fact and fiction right according to historical author Tracy Borman

So, with so many gaps in history, is it even possible to make a historical drama that is 100% accurate?

"No," said Dr O'Connell.

"Yes," said Dr Borman.

"There are always going to be gaps when looking backwards, things will be missing like context or specifics, you can approximate but can never fully recreate the past," Dr O'Connell said.

"It's really tricky to get it right but I'm going to be optimistic," Dr Borman said.

"I'd say it is possible but it depends on the subject.

"Take the Tudors, it was such a dramatic period of history you do not need to make it up, there is no need to embellish the facts."

Image source, Eleven Arches/Kynren
Image caption,
Kynren features more than 1,000 volunteers and charts 2,000 years of British history

More on this story

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.