Historical guessing or expert accuracy? SCEMS scholar Catherine Fletcher on her Wolf Hall work

Public Historian and SCEMS scholar, Dr Catherine Fletcher has been sharing her reflections on her contribution to Wolf Hall and its reception in the media on Sheffield’s History Matters blog.

Dr Fletcher, who is a Lecturer in Public History at the University of Sheffield, acted as a historical advisor for the TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel, and described her approach to the task in a recent article for The Conversation: ‘How I played the historical guessing game‘. Her role also received coverage in The Telegraph (‘Wolf Hall programme-makers insist on straight, white teeth‘).  Yet her History Matters reflections were prompted by an interview on local radio, where she was introduced as a ‘historical accuracy expert’.  She muses,

If I know one thing about early modern history, it’s that there are as many interpretations of it as there are historians. I also know that even when historians agree, accurate history rarely makes for excellent drama. A film-maker who tried for an ‘accurate’ version of the complexity of Tudor court politics would lose the audience within minutes. Compromise is essential. Even the most sophisticated long-form television manages at best an ensemble of a dozen. So, you pick just one or two courtiers, a couple of secretaries, a pair of ladies-in-waiting. In real life, of course, there were numerous such people. The first episode of Wolf Hall, for example, telescoped into a few lines of dialogue events that took up several dozen pages of my book on Henry VIII’s first divorce.
In debates about the accuracy of TV drama it’s often forgotten that historians do this slimming-down process too. We select case-studies. We edit. We interpret. One book – even of the 800-page doorstep variety – can’t possibly tell you everything about the reign of a single monarch. The author has made choices about what is important.
In certain areas television routinely compromises. Modern medicine means today’s typical extra has fewer pock-marks than a typical member of a historical crowd. Screen portrayals of Anne Boleyn routinely ignore historical sources suggesting she wasn’t conventionally attractive. But that isn’t a problem of historical precision, it’s a problem of the medium (and particularly for women). Everyone’s expected to be prettier on television.

You can read the rest of Dr Fletcher’s reflections over on the History Matters blog.

On a more frivolous note, fans of Wolf Hall may also enjoy the latest find at Hampton Court. Is this Mark Rylance on a Tudor tapestry? (Second from left.)

Hampton Court Tapestry
Mark Rylance on a Hampton Court tapestry? Photo courtesy of Jonathan Foyle. Source: http://twitter.com/jonathanfoyle

(Courtesy of @JonathanFoyle on Twitter.)