The ‘formula’ period drama – bias or baiting?

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The enduring fascination with the Tudors has led to artistic licence in film and television, such as Channel 5’s recent Anne Boleyn (2021). Arguably, we are currently experiencing the ‘formula’ period drama, where each is a variant of the same premise to shake up history and provoke audience reactions (good, bad, or indifferent).  With the cases of historic impartiality highlighted in this article, it begs the question; Has any history been accurately retold and are we telling history the right way?.

The histories retold to us by historians and the media (current and old) can have agendas. This can be seen with Anne Boleyn (2021) and movies like The Favourite (2018), The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019), and programmes like Bridgerton (2020 – present). These examples outwardly differ, (Bridgerton is an explicit reimagining of the Regency period), yet all were conceived with an amalgamation of non-fictitious and fictitious histories, each retelling history with a modern filter that can divide audiences. 

Anne Boleyn bears testament to the media’s obfuscation of history. Black actor Jodie Turner-Smith was selected to play Anne Boleyn in what has been deemed “identity-conscious casting”, where the selections were focused on the energy of the performance, rather than ethnicity.  Turner-Smith has a powerful presence on screen and is remarkably understanding of the programme’s controversy, as race sadly remains a contentious subject. Terms such as race-baiting, colour-blind casting and identity conscious casting, have been used by journalists in varying degrees of comment. Even the term queer baiting, where a character’s sexuality is made ambiguous by screenwriters to draw in an LGBTQ + audience, arose as Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour share a kiss on screen.

The Tudors have been highly prized in the history books and national culture, which explains the backlash. They have sustained a firm grip on the British public’s imagination due to the royal dynasty’s propensity for corruption, lust and brutality. Anne Boleyn’s story has been interpreted for hundreds of years, often with a diluted history reaching current audiences as time allows myth to become fiction. It is a trend that perhaps commenced with Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (1612) which he wrote for James I’s daughter’s wedding. The play has many inaccuracies such as Anne’s liaison with a mystical lady acting as her second conscience to create a protestant semi-political tale for a 1612 audience. This is an example of past obfuscation of history due to media adaptation. Anne’s story has since become unruly as a consequence. 

Perhaps it is time the histories now told should be diversified? In the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement, dramatizations of figures such as the formidable Ranavalona I, the Queen of Madagascar, would have been more powerful. Ranavalona was seen as a tyrant by foreign contemporaries for her traditionalist policies which attempted to curtail Western influence in Madagascar. Guardian writer, Arwa Mahdawi, argues that while Turner-Smith is a brilliant actress, ‘diversity casting’ for Mahdawi means diversifying the sorts of stories told and exploring the backstories of non-white queens that few people know about

Could it be that inserting black actors into predominantly white histories aids research of social diversity, or undermines it? Recently, costume YouTubers gathered in a video entitled, Why Bridgerton is Problematic – Colorism, Race-Baiting and Implicit Bias, hosted by Costuming Drama. Bridgerton takes the concept of the Regency period, arguably non-fictitious history, and reimagines it. The video discussed the potential of race-baiting in Bridgerton due to the limited screen time allotted to those black characters who were often in secondary roles or cast as villains. It highlights the complexities around how modernity portrays the western history, the confusion that obfuscation of history causes and the breadth of public opinions.

Arguably, the ‘formula’ period drama is now omnipresent as history is being dismantled and rebuilt, with modernity’s attitudes either used to great effect or clashing with the premise and confusing history further. The Favourite, loosely based on the 2015 play by Helen Edmundson, had some historical purists clenching their teeth in fear before it hit the screens and anyone can see from the movie’s trailer that the forgotten past of Queen Anne had been adapted with a crazy modern riff, right down to the punk-like costumes. 

These confused histories are an amalgamation of contemporary accounts, layers of historical interpretation imbued with independent bias and artistic interpretation such as Shakespeare’s Henry VIII or Channel 5’s Anne Boleyn. Past centuries are also to blame for confused histories, the 19th century especially. British historian James Antony Froude stands out as a prime example of an impartial historian who has influenced other historians and literary interpretations. He was a nationalistic, anti-Catholic who glossed over the threats of Spanish armadas as a ‘mild upset’. He was also an admirer of John Knox a 16th-century Scottish minister who wrote against female monarchs, which supported Froude’s strong Victorian patriarchal expectation for women to remain in the domestic sphere as mothers. His writings on Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were easy to read, popular and influential. Recent studies of Froude show him as one of Elizabeth I’s harshest critics, whose work revised histories taught in the schoolroom encouraging readers to deem Elizabeth an unsuitable role model for Victorian women. 1920s historian Conyers Read said Froude created the prevalent impression of Elizabeth I in historiography. Read’s assessment follows suit: ‘She had a sharp tongue, a vile temper, almost no feminine delicacy, and little or no feminine modesty.’ The pattern of influence is therefore evident and it is not surprising that current interpretations bend under the weight of past misconceptions. 

The Favourite (2018), Anne Boleyn (2021) and Bridgerton (2020- present) have several things in common, and each perpetuates these past misconceptions. But primarily their modern attributes aim to provoke varied reactions in a current trend of ‘formula’ period dramas. Furthermore, Tudor histories have been retold countless times and tales of notorious figures like Anne Boleyn have endured controversial theories and enjoyed the limelight. Now it is time for the overlooked, diverse, histories to enjoy the same and take history in a new, exciting direction.

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