Historical drama on film and TV often gets a pasting, but there can be little doubt that the level of accuracy in the sets and styling has improved immensely over the years. We no longer have 18th century heroines with bobby pins in their hair, or sixteenth-century swashbucklers fighting it out beneath nineteenth century portraits. These days there are specialist advisors on everything from the look of the food to the species of flowers in the front garden. I haven’t seen the latest film of Great Expectations (which I gather is less than wonderful) but I bet it has avoided the clanger dropped in the opening minutes of almost every other adaptation: making the gravestones of Pip’s parents look a century old at least.
But can design accuracy go too far?
I was prompted to think about this close to the northernmost point in mainland Britain (which isn’t John O’Groats . You learn something every day).
Near Dunnet Head in Caithness, I visited Mary Ann's Cottage.
It's a rare thing these days – something from the past that hasn’t been tarted up. Mary Ann’s Cottage is a country croft, built in about 1850, and preserved exactly as it was when the last member of the family left it to enter a home in the 1990s. At the last minute, and with the help if the Queen Mother (who lived at the nearby Castle of Mey) the cottage was rescued for the public despite the local council’s demand that it be sold to pay Mary-Ann’s care home fees.
Mary Ann’s Cottage is nothing like those ghastly places where actors dress up and put on funny voices in an attempt to bring the past to life. What's thrilling about the croft is that nothing has been done to achieve a ‘period’ feel. There are plenty of ancient domestic and agricultural artifacts in the house and its outbuildings, but alongside them is a 1960s dial telephone, a budgie’s cage, the graduation photo of Mary-Ann’s son, magazines and newspapers recording events in our lifetimes, and spartan home comforts many of us would recognise. The custodians have politely declined donations of period objects to make the croft seem more ‘authentic’. As a result, we are given a convincing picture of what it was like to live there. Above all, it’s a useful corrective to the view that crofting was always an unremittingly harsh existence, lived out by the victims of oppression. It was the family’s choice to live in this way, and in a simple sense, they lived well.
|This is where the pigs lived|
Mary-Ann’s Cottage is an example of how a home is an organic thing. While retaining much of its 19th century character, the later layers are just as important in telling its story. The same is true the other way round. Our homes today are full of unnoticed reminders of the past, and the TV designers should bear this in mind for modern-day dramas, too.
Unless you happen to be a Russian billionaire or footballer’s wife decorating a new-build with the help of an interior designer, it is highly unlikely that your home is composed entirely of objects manufactured this century – let alone this decade. Anyone filming a TV drama set in 2013 is likely to be tempted to show a fancy boiling water machine, a shelf full of Jamie and Nigella, and and ipad on an onyx worktop. But they should have the courage to include the 1980s Laura Ashley wallpaper still in the loo, the threadbare carpet 1970s carpet on the stairs, and the ancient transistor radio beside the bath, too.
No doubt such ‘anachronisms’ would be likely to draw complaints from people who love looking out for ‘mistakes’, but a courageous designer will know that the only things that should be prohibited from the set are those that were uninvented, or unavailable, at the time of the plot.
Those can really put the audience off. I remember losing faith in Mad Men during the very first episode, when someone pulled on pantyhose more than a decade before they were on sale. Any British drama set in the mid-sixties is likely to put every woman in a mini skirt and kinky boots. Though these were featured in magazines like Honey and Petticoat at the time, in most of the country (and even in most of London) they were nowhere to be seen.
One of the most meticulously ‘accurate’ TV shows is the achingly art-deco Poirot. Oh so very very right. But somehow somewhat wrong. [For copyright reasons, I can’t show you a screenshot to illustrate what I mean, but you can always watch an episode to find out.]
So yes – please film period drama well away from the flight path, cover up the double yellow lines and remove the parking meters where necessary. But don’t take away the horse-trough and water fountain just because they were placed there 100 years before your story is set.
It will always be fun to watch out for a medieval extra wearing a wrist watch, but we should be more tolerant if a character in Pride and Prejudice sits down on a chair made, and bought, half a century before she was born.