British TV history

In a post I published the other day, I commented on some (far from all) of the historical distortions perpetrated by the creator of the TV series Vikings, Michael Hirst. This is perhaps an extreme example of what is quite common in Brtish-written televised historical dramas, at least those written directly for TV. Those based on novels are different, since the good British historical novelists (Bernard Cornwell, Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel and their ilk) play freely with character and language but stick close to actual history.

In the same Michael Hirst’s The Tudors (mistitled because it’s only about Henry VIII, one of five Tudor monarchs, not to mention their illustrious Welsh predecessors), Henry’s two sisters Margaret (who married James IV of Scotland) and Mary (who married first an elderly king of France and, after he died, her brother’s friend Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk) are conflated into one, with Margaret’s name and Mary’s history, except that her elderly first husband is king of Portugal, not France.

Another recent example: in the currently airing Victoria, the queen is depicted as jealous of Albert’s friendship with the (unknown to her) mathematician Ada Lovelace, though in fact Ada had been presented at court and it was Victoria herself who, on the recommendation of her favorite politician, Lord Melbourne (who was a cousin of Ada’s mother), made Ada a countess by making her husband Earl of Lovelace. And when Albert’s father and brother, both named Ernest, visit London in 1844(?), both are portrayed as single while in fact both were married; the younger Ernest’s wife Alexandrine was to become a good friend of Victoria’s.

Interestingly enough, as cavalier as Vikings is about history, it tries to be realistic about language. While the dialogue is predominantly in English, accents are used to distinguish speakers of the original languages: all the actors playing Anglo-Saxon characters speak with a standard English accent (RP), those playing Scandinavians with a Scandinavian one, and those playing Franks with a French one. And in a situation where two languages are spoken, the actors actually speak in the original languages — Old English, Old Norse and Old French. (The last is a bit anachronistic, being in an 11th-century form of the language as found in the Song of Roland rather than that of the 9th-century Strasbourg Oaths, but that’s just  a petty quibble on my part.) The presence of the character Athelstan, who is Anglo-Saxon but speaks Norse (and teaches English to Ragnar), is crucial to the plot.

Consider, by contrast, the series The Last Kingdom, based on Bernard Cornwell’s novels, which covers the same ground as Vikings (the Scandinavian invasions of England) but is historically fairly accurate. While it uses the same accent convention as Vikings (even a modern Irish accent for an Irish character), it never makes clear which language is being spoken, since all the characters seem to understand one another without interpreters. (This is not the case in the novels, only in the TV series.)

Now, Victoria falsifies both history and language. Victoria is known to have spoken German with her mother, with her governess Baroness Lehzen, and with Albert. But in the series not only do they all explicitly speak English, but so does Albert with his brother and father, despite a few poorly pronounced German phrases here and there.

And I have already commented on language use in Wolf Hall (based on Hilary Mantel’s novels).

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