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Anne Boleyn: The new drama modernising history

Dan Jones, executive producer of Anne Boleyn, emphasises the difference between history and drama ahead of the release of the Channel 5 drama this week.

As we approach the release date for Channel 5 drama, Anne Boleyn, we question the difference between history and historical drama. The line between the two is thin and porous. There’s a lot of drama in history, and a lot of history in drama. Many of our most cherished images of British history actually come from the stage and screen, rather than life itself. 

King Richard III offering his kingdom for a horse at Bosworth? That’s Shakespeare. A fat Tudor king chucking chicken legs over his shoulder? That’s The Private Life of Henry VIII. William Wallace yelling “Freedom!” before he has his guts yanked out? Thanks for that, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.

For hundreds of years dramatists have mined the history books for inspiration – knowing there’s only one thing sexier than a good story. That’s a good true story. 

Yet dramatists are rarely trained historians. Nor should they be. Their job is not to seek out objective, messy, complicated, ambiguous sets of facts – to weigh arguments and accept that we might never really know what happened.

The dramatist’s job is to drill down into the essence of a story, find truths that seem to resonate with the modern world, and craft a gripping, satisfying, well-shaped show. 

In doing that, dramatists have a licence to play fast and loose with time, place, space and everything else besides. If the history seems lumpy or misshapen, they have the right to kick it into shape, to sand down the rough edges, to mould it. 

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If you took that away from dramatists – novelists, playwrights or screenwriters – you would remove their superpower. And the world would be a more boring place for it.

All of which is awkward. Because on the one hand, historical drama is not designed to be very accurate. But on the other hand, it has such huge popular appeal that many people get it mixed up with ‘what really happened’. 

That’s where historical advisors come in.

Next week the three-part TV drama  Anne Boleyn, starring Jodie Turner-Smith, premieres on Channel 5. I’m an executive producer of the show, and helped the writer, director and other producers find a balance between truth and fiction. I also helped the cast research the real characters they portray.

It’s a job I’ve done before on other shows, and one that requires trust and faith between everyone involved.  

In theatre, race and gender have seldom mattered very much to casting. TV and film are slowly catching up

My main rule – in fact, my only rule – when advising historical dramas is this: it’s fine to get the history wrong, so long as you know why you’re doing it.  

What that means in practice is that every department of a historical drama should know what really happened in the true story they’re adapting. So, for example, the costume department should know what Anne Boleyn really wore on the day of her execution. The assistant directors, who cast ‘extras’, should know how many people would typically be standing around Henry VIII’s court at any given moment, and what they ought to be doing. And so on.

The job of a historical advisor is to pass on that information, but not to insist that it is represented exactly on screen. Budgets, time, lighting, the director’s vision for a scene – all of these affect what is filmed just as much as historical accuracy, and I respect that. That’s showbiz! So long as everyone is clear where they’re deviating from the history,and why, then you can make historical drama with a clear conscience, and stand up proudly for the final product.

At the moment one of the most interesting areas in historical drama involves casting. In theatre, race and gender have seldom mattered very much to casting. TV and film are slowly catching up. In our show Anne Boleyn is played by Jodie and the whole cast is racially diverse. The thinking is simple: you cast the actor who connects most with the spirit and essence of the character.

I know from social media that a few people have found that difficult to process. But it’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Everyone knows the real Anne Boleyn was white. But we’re making a drama, and historical drama is about reinventing old stories to ask questions about the modern world. 

We knew what we were changing about Anne’s story – and why. We were splicing modern themes with a familiar story. And the effect is very powerful. That’s the point of historical drama. That’s why we do this job.

Anne Boleyn starts on June 1 at 9pm on Channel 5.

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