Proper Gander – Presenting the past

How accurate do we expect or want historical dramas on TV and film to be? Fiction, by definition, isn’t factual, and even when a story is based on real events, it can’t be an exact recreation. There will always be liberties taken to fit the events into the drama’s running time and conventions about plot and character development. Depictions of the past are always infused with the mores of the time when they were made. A drama produced in the 1970s and set in the 1870s has 1970s interpretations of Victorian styles of dress and furnishings, as well as of the attitudes and motivations of the characters. Anyone watching Upstairs Downstairs, for example, would instantly know whether they were watching the 1970s or the 2010s version.

One prominent trend in recent years is to place more emphasis on diversity in how historical dramas are produced. Previously, the media has been guilty of neglecting non-white people’s experiences and perpetuating negative stereotypes. A notorious example is the 1915 film Birth of a Nation for its racist depiction of black people in 19th-century America, while 1939’s Gone with the Wind, set in the same period, gave a distorted impression of relations between black and white people. Of course, many historical dramas have aimed to bring attention to issues affecting black people and communities by recreating what happened as realistically as possible, two examples being Roots (1977, 2016) and BBC One’s Small Axe (2020). Authenticity hasn’t been a priority for Netflix’s ratings hit Bridgerton, which revolves around an aristocratic black family in early 19th-century London. Series creator Chris Van Dusen acknowledges the unlikeliness of this scenario, saying that Bridgerton ‘is a reimagined world, we’re not a history lesson, it’s not a documentary. What we’re really doing with the show is marrying history and fantasy in what I think is a very exciting way. One approach that we took to that is our approach to race’ (

The series was inspired by the largely debunked claim that Queen Charlotte (1744 – 1818) recognisably had some black African ancestry. In 2023 spin-off Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, she is played by India Amarteifio, who has part-black African heritage. Channel 5’s 2021 miniseries Anne Boleyn has Jodie Turner-Smith, of Jamaican heritage, cast as Henry VIII’s second wife. These are examples of one of the bugbears of right-wing online commentators, which they would call ‘race-swapping’. Criticisms of the casting in Netflix’s 2023 docudrama Queen Cleopatra weren’t only limited to social media posts, though. Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities issued a stern statement that Adele James, of Jamaican and British heritage, portraying the Egyptian queen was a falsification of history in that she actually had ‘white skin and Hellenistic characteristics’ (

The reverse was more common in old dramas, with white actors often playing non-white historical figures. As recently as 2014, director Ridley Scott said that he cast white actors in his Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings because ‘I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such’ ( While the landscape has changed a lot even since Exodus, what has remained the same is that those working in the media have to follow whichever approach will attract the most investment and viewers, who also represent income. The recent emphasis on diversity and inclusion is hoped to fit in with the values of those (mainly younger) people in the target market. This is shown most clearly in the increase of non-white people in TV adverts. A more diverse cast is intended to reach a more diverse audience, to attract a more diverse range of people to part with their money to make profits for the elite.

Another motivation is that films need to be made by or cast a set proportion of people from hitherto under-represented groups to be considered for some Academy Awards and BAFTAs. Awards don’t just give recognition for talent; they also confer financial advantage in being another advert for the film, and award-winning artistes can attract more revenue.

So, the emphasis on diversity on TV and in film has economic explanations, alongside sincere attempts to improve the profile and opportunities of groups of people who have traditionally been disadvantaged. This disadvantage has itself stemmed from economic circumstances, when non-white people have been seen as less attractive in the labour market.

Right-wing commentators on social media have been particularly vocal with their view that representations of ethnicity on TV and film demonstrate that ‘woke’ leftists have infiltrated the industry. This discussion generates attention, and therefore more publicity. Hardly anyone would have heard of Channel 5’s Anne Boleyn series if it hadn’t provoked blather about its lead actor. Predictably, much of the left and right’s discourse is bitter and combative in tone, casting aspersions and fuelling division.

Does it matter if the past is depicted on our screens in a way which doesn’t accurately reflect what it was like? A drama showing non-white characters in improbable positions of status for the time risks dismissing the actual societal restrictions which have been imposed on some groups. While there were a small number of privileged black people in Regency era Britain, such as Ignatius Sancho and Dido Elizabeth Belle, a black family wouldn’t have been as wealthy and powerful among the English elite of the early 1800s as the fictional Bridgertons. Their lifestyles would bear no relation to those of the people from Africa still trapped in the slave trade at the time. Another drama set in the same era which gives a misleading impression is 2022’s The Woman King. This film retells the story of the Agojie, a female warrior unit of the West African kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin), as an example of empowered black women, downplaying the patriarchal and slave-based system of which they were part. The inaccuracies undermine the strength which the messages of emancipation or equality aim for.

An important distinction between these dramas is in how they are pitched. With Bridgerton, Exodus: Gods and Kings and Anne Boleyn, there’s a stated or unstated understanding that what’s on screen is not historically accurate, with this looseness giving a wider range of actors the chance to explore roles. With Queen Cleopatra, Queen Charlotte and The Woman King, there are some claims for authenticity, which invite more scrutiny. Unfortunately, the way the ‘culture war’ over historical dramas is usually fought online distracts from recognising the economic context in which the debate has arisen.


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