Features Muse

Bringing History to Life

Joseph Silke talks to academic Hannah Greig about historical consultancy and accuracy in film and television

Image: BBC

The Favourite reigns supreme this awards season with numerous accolades already in its royal coffers and its sights set on the Oscars. The film has been noted for its unique take on the court of the hitherto largely forgotten Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart dynasty. Departing from the stereotypical picture of Jane Austen’s England, it emphasises the central role of three women in the bawdy Restoration politics of the early eighteenth century. Its success demonstrates that, while the period genre remains a staple of the screen, it is also moving with the times. “You get landmark moments which change the field,” declared York historian Hannah Greig, who has worked as an advisor on many hit projects such as: The Favourite, Poldark, The Duchess, Gunpowder, Death Comes to Pemberley and Jamaica Inn.

“I’m a historical consultant and I often work with a production, sometimes for a few months or sometimes for a few years depending on the project. I read scripts and occasionally help with their development, looking for how I can enhance the historical content and try to identify content that is historically problematic, whether that be information, the story, or the characters, for example.” Remaining on call and also frequenting  sets, Greig is tasked with helping to bring an authentic yet entertaining reflection of history to life for viewers:  “Sometimes I’ll do a Q&A during rehearsals,” she added, “or I’ll be on hand for the production crew or cast during particular set pieces.”


Greig is a senior lecturer in early modern history specialising in the eighteenth century in the History Department, here at York. Greig got her first job as a historical consultant working on the critically acclaimed The Duchess, starring Kiera Knightley and Ralph Fiennes as Georgian politicians Georgianna Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, and William Cavendish, fifth Duke of Devonshire. How did she enter this line of work? “By luck!” she admitted. “My original academic work was on eighteenth century London, the environment the Duchess of Devonshire was moving in, so when that film was going into production and the makers wanted a historical consultant, I was recommended by experts in the field as somebody who had the knowledge base required. It was a really surprising and exciting adventure into it!” From there Greig separately became involved with BBC productions, which then led to her role as historical advisor to series like Poldark, that will soon be airing its fifth and final series.

It was her work on The Duchess, however, which led to the job with her most successful project, The Favourite. “I started working with them in 2015,” she said. “I was approached by Yorgos Lanthimos before he had done much work in the UK. His other English language film, The Lobster, had only just come out around the time that I met him. It was a really interesting project because I could see from the outset that the nature of his work was not of a typical period drama and I had been looking for a project like that for a while. I felt, as a genre, it has been subject to particular constraints that weren’t necessarily that helpful to history and I thought it would be really great if somebody did something different.”

Elaborating on these constraints on the genre, she said: “There’s an expectation from audiences about what the world should look like and what might happen.” Especially for eighteenth century period pieces, this can often take the form of the romanticised world of ostentatious wigs and balls as depicted in classic literature.

The Favourite shocked some audiences with its less-than-romantic take on the libertine and brutish politics of Queen Anne’s court. The sexual politicking between the Queen, the Duchess of Marlborough, and Lady Abigail only added to a sense of the period genre turned upside down. “If the audience is expecting an Austen world, and they get something very different, that can be a challenge,” explained Greig. “You often get a sense that a drama is working, not just with what’s on the page, but also with what the audience might expect. If you introduce something that seems too foreign, you risk them losing faith in the story, so that’s a balance that productions often have to make.

Challenging expectations can be a powerful framing tool for a production. The Favourite was never about what the audience would expect to see. If anything, Yorgos wanted to see what the traditional period piece would be so he could understand the history and then make strategic decisions about where to deviate from that and make it his own.” Wolf Hall, based on novels by Hilary Mantel, has been praised by some as a gold standard for historical accuracy on film, with some viewers even submitting complaints to the BBC that its £20 000 candle budget hadn’t provided sufficient illumination for the scenes. “I’m interested in what people think is accurate or not,” she said. “It fascinates me that Wolf Hall is often cited as an accurate take of the past but of course it’s a fiction, and Hilary Mantel is very clear it’s a fiction. In what way can we presume to claim it’s accurate? It’s a fictionalised take which is then constructed around what we know the room and the clothes looked like to create an aesthetic that we think is precise even if the story within that is a fiction. It’s not clear to me where in that model the idea of accuracy lies.”

Although women only celebrated one hundred years since some recently first gained the vote in 1918, women have played a pivotal political role throughout history. This is captured in both The Duchess and The Favourite. Through the projects she works on, Greig is keen to highlight the deep involvement of women in the politics of the past, something some audiences might not expect and regard as distinctly modern in its interpretation.

“We are very culturally wedded to an idea that feminism is modern, that women’s political authority is modern, and that women were subject to all sorts of constraints that meant before they got the vote, they were all downtrodden and didn’t really do much,” she lamented. “This is a misrepresentation of a far more nuanced history.” The Duchess of Devonshire is considered by historians to be an outright politician at the heart of the ideological battle between her own Whigs and the Tories. In  The Duchess, the Duchess of Devonshire’s political life takes a secondary role after her romantic interests. “It was difficult to think how we could show her as an active politician in such a way that audiences would believe. “When I first started looking at The Favourite, I only wanted to work on it if it would be confident in showing female power, and it does that. It puts you in a world where women have political authority and doesn’t seek to explain or justify it. It just accepts that it’s how things were at the time and makes the audience believe it which is very powerful.”

As a period drama, the film stands out as one with exclusively strong female leads played by Olivia Coleman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as the Duchess of Marlborough, and Emma Stone as Lady Abigail. “One of the things that’s been happening around The Favourite and also the Mary Queen of Scots film is that we are starting to see a more nuanced understanding of what accuracy is,” she said.

On whether there is an innate tension between historical accuracy and depictions of diversity in period pictures: “There was a sense in which, for example, period dramas were exclusively white for a very long time and historians have been deeply uncomfortable with that. The past was far more diverse than people often recognise - but this again goes back to the constraints of period drama based on audiences’ expectations. “There is actually a sense in which films are becoming more accurate in their interpretation, even if the original driving force wasn’t accuracy but a desire to be more representative of modern audiences who might be watching,” she added. “There’s a marrying of a contemporary commitment to representation which is taking us closer to a historical reality. Productions like Hamilton have done a lot for leading us to have interesting conversations about history and ethnicity using drama and that has given other productions more confidence to be bolder in their casting.” 

Asked whether any unwanted anachronistic elements nonetheless have slipped through the net, she confessed: “Sometimes things do pop up that I wasn’t expecting.” One instance of this was an eighteenth century election scene in Poldark which featured a ballot box. Such an item would never have appeared in reality, as voting was not secret or performed in any recognisably modern process. “That did make me quite cross!” Greig exclaimed. “It was not in the script and wasn’t on set when I was there but was edited in later. Somebody tweeted it to me and they know that made me very cross. I am generally less preoccupied with the minor details, though, as they are often less important to the overall production compared to the story, context, or characters.”

Those who have studied history know it isn’t just a matter of recorded facts, but a more nuanced debate about, sometimes wildly different, interpretations of available source materials. “I explain areas where there are significant differences of historical opinion. For instance, historians are unclear about whether Queen Anne had intimate relationships with other women at court. We will never truly know, but my job is to provide the range of interpretations and my own opinion, but productions will then choose the direction they want to go in. Historians know that Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots never met but the makers of Mary Queen of Scots made an informed decision to depict it happening for dramatic purposes.” Such decisions attract criticisms from some, while others accept the dramatic licence.“One of the things that I think historians can do,” she concluded, “is beef up the debate around film and television and help foster a more sophisticated discussion about history on the back of these dramas.

Film and television reaches far wider audiences than books so, if we are given the opportunity work with that, we should do it. More academic historians are getting involved with drama and I think that’s a fantastic step forward.”

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