How can creatives make history entertaining and accurate?
Although we are seeing green shoots pointing to normality, the comforting duh duhnn sound of the Netflix app still offers welcome escape. Recently I was drawn to The King, directed by David Mechod and starring the wonderful Timothee Chalamet. The King tells the story of the lusty Prince Hal’s transition into King Henry V and his date with destiny on St Crispin’s Day.
Whilst I enjoyed the film (particularly the art direction and performances), I did question why – even when the history is well known – the makers decided to deliver a hybrid narrative which merges actual events with what can only be described as Shakespearian fan fiction. Was it because the producers felt the real history wasn’t complete enough? Or was it just because they had a story they wanted to tell, and the truth wasn’t perceived as being “entertaining” enough?
As a theatre maker I believe the greatest luxury I have is licence. A wise man once told me that theatre’s job was “to take the truth and present it in the most imaginative way”. Theatre, however, is fundamentally make-believe, so that “truth” can often be whatever you want it to be. This approach often conflicts with the museum professional in me. As someone involved in creative programming for a national museum, I like to think I have the luxury of authenticity. I can tell a story– and with the help of our collections and expert colleagues – I can be pretty sure of being “right”. However, when your aim is to engage audiences this can be complicated, as the reality is rarely tidy or linear.
This conflict between authority and licence often impacts creative work around history, especially when dealing with conflict history. I personally call this the Bravo Two Zero effect. Bravo Two Zero was the call sign of an 8-man SAS patrol whose mission went wrong during the First Gulf War. Five of these men survived and three have written books about the mission, all claiming to tell the “real” story. All of these books are presented as “factual” but all are argued against by the other parties involved. This suggests that even eyewitnesses to historical events sometimes exercise licence to enhance a narrative to engage an audience. What is very interesting is that, whilst the story is disputed, all these books place a particular emphasis on technical accuracy and language. So, whilst the reader may never really know what tragic events went on in that desert, they will know how much their rifles weighed. They will also know the buzzwords “recce” and “Standard Operating Procedure”. So, does this mean that if you talk about the “how” with authority, the “what” or “why” is still subject to licence?
I would suggest this approach of “tech authority” over “human authority” is not always helpful as it sometimes removes one of the most important strings from a creative’s bow and that’s human empathy. Very few of us – especially in Europe – will know how it feels to fire a large calibre weapon, so describing this in technical detail will always be abstract. Detailing this to an audience with no lived experience also runs the risk of ethical questions, as it could be seen as titillation around what is ultimately a brutal act. However, almost all of us at some point have been cold, tired, scared or hungry (which are arguably also common experiences of conflict), so is there a way to work within a narrative that is emotionally authentic but rooted in an unusual set of circumstances that is engaging enough without “dramatic” embellishment?
Whilst things going boom is undeniably interesting, I believe there is a way to work with history based primarily on authenticity and human experiences. Here is how I approach it.
1/ Don’t disregard a “good” story whilst looking for “the” story.
History is not just kings and queens and beaches being stormed. It’s the collective experience of billions of unique individuals. Historians work tirelessly to tell as many of these stories as they can. When approaching a creative project involving real events, I would suggest research and flexibility is key. Is your message about a specific person? Or a specific period? You may find that this means you don’t need to take licence by putting Henry VIII in the wrong place because the Duke of York was already there.
2/Facts and figures are fleeting.
“How fast does that tank go?” is a question we often get asked. Once answered the conversation is often over. However, “who drove that tank?” invites so much more scope. Those people had lives outside that tin can. They may have written down their experience but even if they haven’t, we are inviting connection on a human level which allows for a deeper creative engagement.
3/ If you need to create a scenario own it and don’t present it as fact.
“Based on a true story”. I believe this is the biggest cop out in culture. There is absolutely a place for composite history (that draws multiple experiences into a single narrative): this is often rooted in truth but it’s not “true”. We can however use this as a device to tell a wider story for a specific aim. This approach does require a high degree of creative licence so it shouldn’t claim to be authentic. In my opinion, this type of programming should only be used to present a concept or a broader theme and – where possible – should have a conclusion where real events are acknowledged.
4/History is global.
When I started at IWM I was told conflict history is often told from the perspective of the infantryman. Global history is often told from the perspective of white Europeans. This monocultural approach massively limits the stories we can tell, which means using licence becomes more important. Thinking globally is not only the right thing to do in terms of creating a fairer and more equal society, it also gives so much more scope for creativity. The more we widen our knowledge, the more stories we can tell, rather than augmenting the ones we already know.
In conclusion, all creatives have the luxury of licence to a certain extent. However, just because we can doesn’t always mean we should. Human experience is almost infinite and there is arguably no such thing as a truly unique experience. Therefore, I believe if you are willing to look hard enough there is a way to create engaging historical work with authority.-
John Glancy (Imperial War Museums)