The autumn schedule is awash with a royal flush of monarchical drama - but how much of a dramatic licence should programme-makers use when portraying well-documented historical figures? Meg Carter looks at the key ingredients and skills needed for producing historical drama.
The autumn schedule is awash with a royal flush of monarchical drama - but how much of a dramatic licence should programme-makers use when portraying well-documented historical figures? Meg Carter looks at the key ingredients and skills needed for producing historical drama.

Producing successful historical drama depends on many factors but, ultimately, comes down to two things: how well the producers balance the need for dramatic licence against historical accuracy, and assembling a production team sympathetic to the producer and writer's vision. The biggest challenge to achieving either, however, is identifying an appropriate subject to dramatise and then settling on the right approach.

"Finding the right subject matter is incredibly hard," says Andy Harries, Granada's controller of comedy and drama, who executive produced Henry VIIIand the yet-to-air 18th-century Australian convict drama Mary Bryant. "Because of the costs involved [a rough yet widely acknowledged ballpark figure is that historical drama costs an average£1.2m an hour to make] you've got to produce for more than just the UK market. But it's hard to raise the money. It's difficult to find the right story. And lots of subjects have already been done."

One well-travelled path is to reinterpret subjects already tackled by drawing out new contemporary parallels - either from the life of an individual or from the events of a particular time. It's an approach favoured by Francis Hopkinson, senior commissioning editor for drama at Channel 4, who is responsible for Elizabeth I, the second and final part of which airs this week (6 October).

"The starting point has to be something that tells us about the world today - in the case of Elizabeth I, her later years and the conflict between her private and public life. We're not interested in making museum pieces," says Hopkinson. "I believe period drama has little value if it has no contemporary impact - it has to add up to more than just make-up and frocks."

For Hopkinson, any period in history up to around 1990 can provide a subject for historical - or period - drama, which he distinguishes quite clearly as drama inspired by actual people and events rather than drama adapted from literature. He is currently overseeing production of The Queen's Sister, a drama about the life of Princess Margaret, produced by Touchpaper Television.

"Princess Margaret's is a compelling story because she was the first royal superstar brought up in the full media glare so there is a clear resonance with Diana, Harry and William," he says.

Contemporary relevance, however, is less important for the BBC. True, modern parallels were important for the recent Charles II: The Power and the Passion, says BBC head of series and serials Laura Mackie, but the constant thread throughout all BBC historical drama is respective writers' personal take on their particular subject. "Without that," she warns," what you end up with is simply a history lesson."

Before selecting a writer, Mackie says, up to six months can be spent by a script editor thoroughly researching a historical subject. The executive producers and chosen writer, which in the case of the BBC's forthcoming The Virgin Queenwas Paula Milne, then hone their angle on the historical theme, sometimes working with historical consultants as the script is written, sometimes once it is complete - it's the writer's choice.

The use of historical consultants is a thorny issue for many producers. On the one hand, there is widespread acknowledgement of the importance of historical accuracy; on the other, while certain historical facts are indisputable, many historians have conflicting interpretations of different events. And when a historical drama falls foul of the experts - as did Andrew Davies' Boudicafor ITV which prompted historian Michael Wood to call it "off the wall period hokum" - the danger is the audience's belief in the production can be undermined.

"If audiences feel they are being sold something unbelievable then they will question the whole integrity of the drama," Hopkinson believes. At the same time, audiences have certain expectations honed by previous historical dramas which a producer would be foolish to challenge without good cause. "You want historians to praise what you are doing - you risk their wrath at your peril," he adds. "People want to feel informed as well as entertained."

That said, there's a difference between being accurate and feeling accurate, many believe. In the court of Henry VIII, for example, the Tudor king's courtiers would never have looked him in the eye: not a fact that could be easily replicated on film.

"If you are doing anything based on actual people and events there's no point doing it unless you are respectful of the facts - you might as well make it up, otherwise," Mackie says. "But it's also essential to balance this against the need to make an engaging drama - fail in that and all you end up with is a biopic." The key is to choose the right historical consultants, she adds, and the best ones understand clearly the difference between making a documentary and making a drama.

Assembling the right production team is also critical to a historical drama's success. It is essential to recruit people who share the executive producer and writer's vision for a project, says Company Pictures executive producer Suzan Harrison. "You always have to trawl carefully to find the talent best suited to the material," she says.

Harrison defines "best" in terms of how closely a prospective producer, director or designer understands and shares the approach and vision already agreed upon by the executive producer and writer. It has less to do with how experienced an individual is in historical drama production, she says.

"If I have any rule it's that I like to work with people willing to put in extra research to take a production further - to go beyond the obvious sources of information, like historical books and official paintings from the time," Harrison adds. "This was particularly important for Elizabeth Ias if we'd only relied on the obvious source materials we could have ended up with a formal, ceremonial style and tone which might have alienated the audience."

The good news, she adds, was that despite two dramas tackling overlapping periods of history going into production almost simultaneously, there was no shortage of great talent to choose from: "There are many, many people out there eager to turn their hand to historical drama because it is so different to producing contemporary drama and because of the creative challenges involved."

Some crew members do have specific historical experience, of course. But many executives, like Mackie, insist they prefer to mix things up a bit. Aside from the fact that few people can afford to specialise in any particular period, more important than historical specialism is the ability to pick up knowledge along the way, she believes.

"The important thing is to have creatives who are flexible and good to work with - especially if you are filming abroad - as we did with Charles II," Mackie adds. "Coky Giedroyc, who is directing The Virgin Queen, had not done historical drama before. You've just got to trust them to do their homework and run with it. I'm a firm believer in the importance of refreshing the talent pool rather than using the same people time and time again."

Garb wars: the battle of the Elizabeths

No one planned it that way but by the time Elizabeth Ion Channel 4 was greenlit, another historical drama about the same characters and historical period was also in development: The Virgin Queen, which is due to air in the new year on BBC TV.

Despite the potential for a clash between the two production teams in their respective hunts for the best cast, crew, props, costumes and locations, both productions insist the two versions had little direct impact on each other - except when it came to costumes.

"Before the cast is confirmed I usually work closely with the director, production and make-up designers to plan the background canvas - what the extras will wear and the different colours that should colour the background of different scenes," says Elizabeth Icostume designer Mike O'Neill.

"But when I went to source the background costumes, the vast majority of the London stock of Elizabethan costumes available had been earmarked by the BBC," he adds. "It was a huge problem."

Luckily, there are two central sources of Elizabethan costumes available to producers worldwide - in London and in Rome. But although O'Neill found the costumes he needed in Italy, few items were in the colours the production team wanted. There was only one solution: he would have to make them from scratch.

"It's not something you would normally do on a TV drama because of budget limitations," O'Neill admits. "But I went to Lithuania and met the costume people there and they were willing to help. I set up a workroom with two cutters and 20 seamstresses. They had film expertise but had never seen any costumes from Elizabethan England, having worked mainly on either contemporary films or medieval tales of marauding barbarians."

He got the team to make some early prototypes copying samples he brought to Vilnius from the UK; the early signs were not good, however. "The first costumes they made were deeply disappointing," says O'Neill. "But we worked together to re-do them, and eventually all of us were thrilled with the result."

The costumes were then dyed the colours required to set the right tone for different scenes and the finishing touches - jewellery, beading and metallic threadwork - were done by a British and a Czech finisher with whom O'Neill had worked before. Attention then switched to the main characters who, by then, had been cast. Again, almost all of the costumes were made from scratch - both to be historically accurate and to match the producers' dramatic vision.

"There is extensive evidence of Elizabeth's ceremonial dress, but you have to remember many of the paintings done at the time were done to flatter. We decided very early on not to replicate images of that period that were already out there but to convey the essence of that world without being cavalier about the actual detail," O'Neill explains. The end result is that Elizabeth I's wardrobe is full of costumes she was never painted in, although each one carries some of the signature design details and symbols detailed by painters and historians.

All in all, many hundreds of costumes were required, but by the time shooting got underway O'Neill's workroom had become a finely tuned production unit with garments turned around quickly to be ready for each actor just before their next scene. "What at first seemed a huge problem turned out to be a great opportunity," he now believes. "We had absolute control over every piece of costume appearing in front of the camera, which was wonderful."

Home or away?

Deciding where to film a historical drama is one of the biggest decisions for a production team - and a far subtler process than simply calculating which location will guarantee the cheapest shoot.

"You can get more production value on the screen if you shoot somewhere like Lithuania - or the Czech Republic, where we made Colditzand Doctor Zhivago," says Andy Harries, Granada's controller of comedy and drama, who laments the lack of financial incentives under the current British tax regime to encourage producers to shoot TV drama in the UK.

Harries admits he agonised over where to film Henry VIII, the mini-series starring Ray Winstone which he executive produced for ITV before finally deciding to film it at Pinewood. "Shoot here and it requires a constant balancing act to make the figures add up. You make compromises, such as shooting fewer exteriors," he says.

Justin Bodle, chief executive of Powercorp, which co-produced both Henry VIII and the BBC's Elizabeth I drama, The Virgin Queen, says that where to shoot is often dictated by which location best conveys a sense of a historical drama's scale.

"With historical drama costing so much to produce well, securing co-production finance is critical," he says. "This means not only must you be sure you have a damned good story you must also think big enough to ensure the drama has the impact to appeal beyond a domestic audience."

From the outset, Bodle adds, the BBC and Powercorp agreed that The Virgin Queenneeded to look big. "The approach was to think cinematically: to use more exteriors and wider shots. And this influenced our decision to shoot in the UK, although it would have been cheaper to shoot abroad," he explains.