Historical fiction? Fiction, certainly – not so sure about the history though …

Catholic bishops have branded Wolf Hall inaccurate and anti-Catholic. Quite right. So far, half the viewers think the series is marvellous and half of them can’t follow the plot or see in the dark (which is more or less the same thing) and a million such viewers have gone off to make a cup of tea and never came back.

The fault, dear Brutus, lies not with the TV adaptation but with the book itself. Hilary Mantel (not an historian, alas) wrote it (incomprehensibly) in the present tense, which meant that, far from being unable to put it down, I could barely pick it up. Some time ago I asked a class of Year 9 students to write up the situation in Germany in the 1920s from the point of view of Adolf Hitler. One girl said she couldn’t because she couldn’t get inside the head of such a misfit with so much blood on his hands. I sympathised. Historians, I told her, are supposed to be unbiased, even-handed, fair. But some individuals stand out as being, to use a technical term much bandied about where scholars gather, utter shits. Thomas Cromwell, Dame Mantel’s (how did that happen?) hero is one such.

If you doubt this, take in Leo McKern’s brilliant portrayal of him in A Man For All Seasons. More historically, have a look at Hans Holbein’s portrait of Cromwell in the National Portrait Gallery – the thick neck, the piggy, shifty eyes; it’s all there; psychopathy writ large. He is an anti-hero and literature is full of them. The problem comes when fiction passes as fact. What’s the betting that desperate History teachers will soon be using the DVD of Wolf Hall as a classroom aid? It then, to undiscerning kids, becomes fact. It’s not going to happen in my classroom!


Hysterically inaccurate … sorry, that should be ‘historically’!

Inevitably, as an historian, I am drawn to TV programmes that deal with the past. There’s an awful lot of hype re Wolf Hall (let’s hope it’s better than the book!). And dear old David Starkey is about to give us his take on Magna Carta. Starkey says (quite rightly) that it is surprising that the Prime Minister, expensively educated at Eton, did not know what it meant. What is even more surprising is that Starkey calls the misunderstood old document the Magna Carta, which is 100% incorrect as the definite article in Latin was rarely used and never in the context of Magna Carta.

Which brings me on to the Musketeers. Producer Colin Wratten, writing in the Weekend Mail hopes we’re all enjoying it and thinks they’ve all done a pretty good job of recreating 17th century France. It’s not the backdrops that are flawed, Colin; it’s everything else. It looks a little bit like the Wild West has come to Paris, France. The broad-brimmed hats are lifted at the side like stetsons. In PR stills the boys all stand around with legs apart like wannabe John Waynes. And when they whip out their six-shooter – er – sorry – wheel-lock pistols, they never miss, even at an impossible yardage. In this series, we have a black Spanish general – there were so many of those in the 17th century! Leave it to Alexandre Dumas, Colin, there’s a dear!

So, with my love of the past, it is just as well everything on the TV is a repeat!