We all need a bit of escapism right now and, for many, the destination of choice has been the land of fiction.
Before I continue, I will admit that I’m a historian at heart. Degree aside, I have always been fascinated by the past and the people in it. And I’m by no means the only one. History has many attractions: it feeds curiosity about who we are and how we got here; fulfils a desire to discover and share stories of struggle, survival, and human nature, ranging from the depressing to the profoundly inspiring; and it guards against the age-old adage of being doomed to repetition. I could go on (don’t worry, I won’t).
One allure of history – which has undoubtedly come into its own in 21st Century popular culture – is its ability to transport us somewhere different. We need only look as far as Netflix’s Bridgerton to see the widespread attraction of getting lost in the past. The series has become massively popular, attracting praise for its compelling storylines, complex characters, decadent costumes and settings, and its inclusivity.
But it is not the first, nor will it be the last, to utilise our fascination with what came before to deliver an indulgent escape from our own reality (see below for a short list of my current favourites). From time travel to period dramas, ‘the past’ has proven itself a valuable literary tool in the world of entertainment.
Like most uses of history, this presents its own set of problems. Romanticisation is a common pitfall, frequently highlighted by the academic community, as is historical accuracy. I won’t go into detail here about the many public history debates which flare up between scholarly historians and media producers with dependable frequency, often coinciding with the release of a new film or series fictionalising the past; suffice to say there are a range of opinions on the subject. But should we be overly pernickety about historical accuracy in productions clearly intended for entertainment?
For my part, I believe there is no harm in adapting historical narratives or time periods for entertainment value. Within reason. Obviously, we should be aware that fictional depictions are merely based on the real thing and be careful not to confuse them with historical fact. There is arguably an element of fiction to all history, even the academic, as we have no way of knowing exactly what happened; we can only make conclusions based on available evidence, which themselves depend on our imaginations to fill in the blanks.
The optimist in me also believes that Bridgerton and its predecessors (e.g. Downton Abbey, Mary Queen of Scots, the various adaptations of Austen novels, to name just a few of the most popular) can encourage people to investigate the real-life counterparts of their favourite settings and characters – it certainly helped to get me interested in history.
I therefore believe historical fiction, if handled well, can enhance our appreciation of the past and the people in it. It appeals to our imaginations and our emotions, and is admittedly more uplifting than much academic history. In the absence of a time machine (and the presence of travel restrictions) a good TV show is likely the closest any of us will get to actually seeing the past, romanticised though it may be. In any case, when the alternative is the same four walls we’ve had keeping us company for nigh on a year now, escaping to a different time for a few hours can’t be a bad thing.
Here is a selection of my favourite history-related TV shows:
Anne with and E (Netflix): A fantastic adaption of the classic Anne of Green Gables books. It does deviate somewhat from the source material, but this enhances the appeal of the show and arguably mitigates some of the more nit-picky arguments about accuracy from booklovers (like myself). A beautiful and heartfelt story about an orphan finding her home and growing up with her friends in late 19th-Century PEI, Canada. All the characters are fantastic, it is practically impossible not to love them. Make sure to have tissues handy just in case.
Derry Girls (Channel 4): A fantastic sit-com based in a very serious and controversial setting. It does a fantastic job of incorporating the Troubles into the narrative, which follows the antics of 5 teenagers as they go through their daily lives, growing up and learning about life. It manages to be both hilarious and deeply moving. Definitely worth a watch.
Timeless (NBC, Netflix): A different take on the obligatory time travel show. A thrown-together team using a prototype time-machine to fight an illuminati-style society aiming to change history so they can control the world. The characters are easy to love and the storyline is compelling, with a few twists along the way. The use of historical settings is clever: a different era is featured in each episode.
A Discovery of Witches (SkyOne, on NowTV): Involves a historian who is also a witch. A good mix of fantasy and a bit of time travel, with some mythical creatures thrown in. A bit darker than your usual historical drama, but definitely exciting.
Bridgerton (Netflix): Decadent regency-era romance. Very cleverly done and ridiculously easy to watch in one sitting. Arguably the best period-drama I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen most of them). If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it now.