The Sydney Morning Herald

By Andrew Taylor

A surprising amount of thought went into deciding which characters in Wolf Hall would eat with spoons.

"We had fun trying to work out which of our characters were cosmopolitan enough to possibly have started using spoons," says Peter Kosminsky, the director of the television series. "And which ones — very much the old families, the ones who wanted to see Mary, the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, on the throne — we thought would have steadfastly stood out against the new ways coming from Europe."

The six-part television adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, chronicles the rise of Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith's son who became King Henry VIII's chief minister. The cast is led by Mark Rylance who plays Cromwell, and includes Homeland star Damian Lewis as Henry VIII, Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn and Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Wolsey.

"I should make it clear Hilary Mantel spent five years researching the historical background of her novel," Kosminsky says. "We rested very heavily on that. The research we did ourselves was more to do with how the actors should comport themselves.

"For example, how did you eat when you sat at a meal table in Tudor England? How would you bow? How would you doff your hat? How would you dress? How would you carry your sword? It's very easy to just draw on the memory of a thousand bad movies and assume you know."

Hollywood has never let the facts get in the way of telling a story, but controversies surrounding the accuracy of films such as Selma, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everything suggest filmmakers are held to higher standards these days. In each case, filmmakers stand accused of ignoring history for the sake of drama. Selma, for example, wrongly suggests US President Lyndon B. Johnson was an obstacle to the civil rights movement and at odds with Martin Luther King Jr., according to The Washington Post. Moreover, the film does not include King's famous words because his speeches are copyrighted to another yet-to-be-made film project about the civil rights leader by Steven Spielberg.

Getting the facts right was not the foremost consideration of filmmakers in the 1960s and '70s, says Rodney Taveira, a lecturer in American Studies at the University of Sydney.

The 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, was riddled with inaccuracies in its portrayal of several characters, which led the the filmmakers to be sued for defamation.

"Directors had visions, and this was not primarily concerned with historical detail, but with putting new kinds of images on the screen, images that were violent and sexual in ways not previously seen, images that were decidedly taking place in the present, even if the film was set in the past," Taveira says. "The Godfather wanted to get at the mix of religion, organised crime, government, and the street. The presenting of these things as embroiled with the other was previously unexplored, or less explicitly so," he adds.

But times have changed. These days, both the creators and consumers seem to take pleasure in historical accuracy. "There is a sense of people working hard at their craft to create a beautiful, consumable product, and consumed it is," says Taveira.

Taveira points to the rise of social media, which has increased opportunities for TV criticism by anyone with access to the internet. There is a website dedicated to deciphering how the wardrobe in Mad Men interacts with the show's story lines.

"Given the increasingly social space of television criticism — recaps, blogs, even tumblrs — the clothes and decor, the mise-en-scene, is an easily quotable aspect of a television show to analyse quickly, and especially when there is a larger narrative that hasn't yet played out, yet a critic or a viewer needs to say something in response to an episode, or a scene," Taveira says.

Bigger budgets allow shows like Wolf Hall to achieve greater accuracy, while nitpicking audiences have more outlets through which to lampoon movies and television shows that take take liberties with history.

Yet too much historical detail can be a mistake. Robbie Perkins is the production designer for Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. "I think holding the period back is very important," he says.

Miss Fisher might be set in the 1920s, but Perkins says not every prop is from that era. "Only one or two people had the latest vehicle," he says. Likewise, the show depicts a range of architectural styles in Melbourne, dating back to the 1830s. As Perkins points out, not everything in the 1920s was built, made or designed in the 1920s.

Wolf Hall was filmed in English period buildings used during Henry VIII's reign, including Montacute House and Barrington Court. Kosminsky's quest for authenticity saw the interiors of stately homes shot by candlelight. The show's director of photography, Gavin Finney, tested five cameras with different sets of lenses and was able to shoot scenes lit with only one candle.

This level of detail is also evident in the cloaks and codpieces, bodices and square-toed boots worn by the cast. Wolf Hall's assistant designer Clare Vyse says more than 100 costumes were created using mostly "original practice" — patterns and methods from the Tudor period.

"All visible stitching is done by hand and even linings are made from fibres available at the time," Vyse says. "We were constantly balancing the requirements of budget against the desire to create 'authentically correct' clothes . . . No zips and no Velcro were used at any time."

Costume designer Edie Kurzer came up with a less glamorous wardrobe for the coming ABC mini-series The Secret River, based on Kate Grenville's award-winning novel about colonial Australia. "As our characters were primarily from a working class background the 'fashion' was more about getting by with what you could acquire or make rather than wanting to look fabulous," she says.

The Secret River follows early convict colonialists William and Sal Thornhill as they come into conflict with the traditional owners of land on the Hawkesbury River. Kurzer says there was little historical material to rely on when designing costumes. "We sourced natural materials that had existed at that time and referenced authentic colours and prints as well as we could," she says.

She also avoided using zips and Velcro. "This translated all the way down to the undergarments that people wore and how they were held on with eyelets, hooks and ties."

The Industrial Revolution was under way during the period of The Secret River, but Kurzer says characters would have mostly worn hand-made clothes.

"For practical reasons we couldn't actually do that with all our costumes, but we did do a lot of hand-finishing on garments to give that feel," she says. "We even had some buttons hand cut and made from horn to use on one of Will's waistcoats."

This level of historical fidelity is not universal. Where Wolf Hall strives to get the facts right, another 16th-century drama, Reign, has been rubbished for turning the early years of Mary, Queen of Scots into a soap opera.

The series was described as an insult to viewers by USA Today's Robert Bianco: "Only a pedant would demand absolute fealty to the historical record from a network drama, but this isn't so much an adaptation of Mary's story as an abrogation."

However, the show's star and former Neighbours actor, Adelaide Kane, defended inaccuracies (among them, the show's depiction of French prince Francis as a hunk rather than a sickly teen). "It's TV so, you know, we can take creative licence with it," Kane reportedly said. "It's entertainment — it's not the History Channel."

Even the BBC sometimes gets history wrong. The seven-part drama Banished, about the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney, features David Wenham as Governor Arthur Phillip, but omits indigenous characters.

Hefty budgets do not guarantee historical accuracy. Netflix's expensive series Marco Polo, reportedly made for $US90 million (dwarfing Wolf Hall's £7 million budget), sexed up characters and added romance — much to the disdain of many critics.

Some would argue that fictional dramas should be allowed to stretch the truth for the purposes of entertainment. Taveira is "very forgiving" of film and television messing up historical detail. "It's when the complexity of a milieu — its gender, sex, and race politics — are ignored . . . that I have issues," he says. For example, he criticises Mad Men for what he sees as its marginalising of African-Americans from its supposedly authoritative depiction of the 1960s.

Still, he says the show "does a very good job of evoking the milieu, based on a visually-appealing surface".

It is not necessarily the task of fictional film and television to get every detail correct, but Taveira says shows that depart from the historical record should "somehow makes it clear that, despite how real and accurate it seems, it is fictional".

The writer and creator of Vikings, Michael Hirst, agrees, pointing to the difference between drama and documentary. "Life has no shape and drama has to have shape," he says. "You want people to engage with the characters."

Hirst has made a career out of writing historical dramas, including the films Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, both starring Cate Blanchett, and the Emmy Award-winning television series The Tudors. His latest show, Vikings, is inspired by Ragnar Lothbrok, who led raids on England and became King of Denmark. The series is generally well-regarded, although its portrayal of Viking Age government, clothing and criminal justice have been criticised as inaccurate.

"What you're looking for is not historical accuracy — in any case there is no such thing as historical accuracy because otherwise all historians would agree," he says. "What you're looking for is authenticity, is plausibility, is consistency and hopefully some truth."

Accurate or authentic, Hirst says today's historical dramas are better than those of the past because the characters resonate more with viewers. "I have grown up hating BBC historical drama because I always thought it had nothing to do with me," he says. "The issues had nothing to do with me. The people seemed very remote, they spoke in strange ways, they were like museum pieces."

He also subscribes to the widely-held view that this is a golden age of television drama with bigger budgets "and that makes it possible to make realistic and visually interesting dramas".

"My big dream and desire was to make historical dramas which connected to contemporary people," he says. "To make these historical characters resonate with audiences today."

When Hollywood Fails History

Bonnie and Clyde

Faye Dunaway's failure to hide her beauty as the murderous Bonnie Parker is the least of this 1967 film's inaccuracies. Its portrayal of Texas ranger Frank Hamer led his family to sue for defamation, which resulted in an out-of-court settlement. The film's suggestion that the couple sent photos to the press is also wrong.


Mel Gibson's Oscar-winning film about Sir William Wallace portrays the hero as born into poverty whereas most historians believe he was born into the Scottish aristocracy. Scots did not wear kilts or paint their faces in the 13th century as the film suggests. It's unlikely Wallace met, let alone knocked up, Princess Isabella, who was a child at the time the movie is set.

The Patriot

Another Mel Gibson film, this blockbuster about the American revolutionary war was slammed for misrepresenting British soldiers as Nazis and ignoring slavery. Gibson's supposedly heroic Benjamin Martin was based on a real life character who reportedly persecuted Cherokee Indians and raped female slaves.

Pearl Harbor

This 2001 blockbuster version of the Japanese attack on the United States in World War II rearranged the chronology of events, put 21st-century communications into 1940s aircraft and suggested the attack was a surprise to America's leaders.

The King's Speech

Another Oscar-winning film that plays fast and loose with the truth, especially its portrayal of Winston Churchill as a friend of the stuttering George VI rather than his Nazi-sympathising brother King Edward VIII. What's more, George VI worked with speech therapist Lionel Logue for far longer than the few years suggested in the film.

This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald