3 November 2019

Bungled again

According to a TV reviewer in the Times newspaper, "Depicting a fascist rally in Manchester in 1939, the opening scene had the leaders dressed in Blackshirt uniform". But, under the 1936 Public Order Act, this had been banned.

How carefully accurate does a historical film have to be? Of course, there is no objective answer to this. It depends on what you want. I am going to tell you what I want.

Personally, I want to understand  historical periods; to feel, to the tiny degree to which such a thing is possible, how things were. I instinctively treat such productions as Evidence; sources; data which, added to data I already have, can fill in details within a picture of a historical reality.

In the old 1960s film of Tom Jones, an Anglican clergyman, so I recall, wore a stole. If somebody really had done that, it would have been a very interesting fact indeed. In a clip of a Jane Austen which I once saw, a girl was wearing a cross on a chain round her neck. Did Georgian Anglican girls do this? It would be interesting to be told that they did ... this detail would go to building up a revisionist picture of Georgian Anglicanism. Otherwise, I think I would assume that the girl must have been a recusant. In which case, I would wonder which clever literary researcher had discovered such an interesting subtext.

But ... we all know it's probably just an unbelievably ignorant props manager ... and that we can only enjoy such productions if we suspend completely any instinct to look for clues and just doze through it all. Or if we are prepared to work so hard as to treat each piece as if it really operates at two levels: this is how a stupid person in the 1990s misunderstood the 1830s.

But isn't that very hard work? And potentially unrewarding?

In a 1990s dramatisation of Stendahl's Le rouge et le noir, a French monarch of the Bourbon Restoration is about to drive through a township. Those waiting to cheer him are waving sweet little tricolour flags on sweet little sticks. How interesting that this custom existed in France as early as the first third of the nineteenth century. If it did! But, forgetting about that comparatively minor detail, my own reading of such a scene would lead me to assume that the town was very provocatively anti-Bourbon ... indeed, to wonder whether the imminent monarch (Charles X?) would perpetrate an angry massacre when he beheld such breath-taking defiance with his very own royal eyes. After all, much later in the century King Henri V sacrificed an opportunity of restoration because he refused to sanction the Emblem of the Revolution.

British readers will admire my restraint in saying nothing about some 'Austens' currently on our TV.
I simply can't watch silly costume dramas by dirty-minded illiterates purporting to offer us the divine Jane. 

In fact, my only surviving weaknesses in this area are the Beeb's Brideshead and David Suchet's Poirot (the other night, I think I saw a genuine Tamara Lempicka hanging on an Art Deco wall ...). 


Mr Grumpy said...

Possibly your last visit to the old parsonage in Chawton was before they acquired the topaz crosses worn by Jane and Cassandra Austen?

These fine pieces of jewellery were gifts from their naval officer brother Charles, bought when he was flush with prize money. Whether he was influenced by the jewellery he had seen women wearing when he put in to Papist ports I cannot say.

Some years later Jane made Fanny Price the recipient of a cross from her sailor brother. Of course if Mansfield Park is not your favourite Austen you are in good company.

I assume what you saw was a clip from the 1990s Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle (and David Bamber as a priceless Mr Collins). There's nothing more salacious than Mr Darcy in a wet shirt, and I would really recommend seeing the whole thing.

vetusta ecclesia said...

Brideshead was near perfect - though at one point Bridey says he spoke to the Bishop of London about the Chapel.

Tina Beattie, who describes herself as Catholic, and as a theologian, in her novel the Good Priest, more than once refers to the priest using a Missal when she is clearly intending to mean a Breviary.

William said...

Thanks, Reverend Father, you've scratched an itch of long standing. Revisions and inaccuracies in period documentaries and dramas drive me, too, up and over the wall. The current BBC's "Father Brown" series is a hoot: Does this RC priest actually officiate in an Anglican sanctuary?

John Vasc said...

What I find much more terrifying is how a stupid person in 2019 misunderstands the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Frederick Jones said...

If my memory serves me well in Foyle's War towards the end of WW2 or just after a baby is baptised by a rite from the Alternative Services'Book published in 1980.

Pelerin said...

William mentions 'Father Brown.' So many inaccuracies there you can play spot the mistake in every episode!
The church (an ancient one surrounded by a grave yard) is obviously an Anglican church. And in the 1950s the years it has been transposed to, the Priest celebrating the Mass never stood outside shaking hands with his parishioners. Only the Anglicans did that. The Celebrant always went straight back to the Sacristy but if there was an assistant Priest then he might stand outside. Recently 'Father Brown' was shown making the sign of the cross from right to left - perhaps the film was reversed but I would have thought they could have got that right!

Mariana said...

My pet hates are Hollywood productions showing 18th century ladies wearing off-the-shoulder dresses. And peasantry of all centuries wearing shawls, when in fact textiles were precious and carefully cut into clothes. Shawls were for the rich, for showing off.

And acres of big, fat candles lighting medieval and later castles and churches.

Alan said...

Clergy attire and liturgical practice always a problem for telly producers, I'm a member of a Facebook group dedicated to howlers, and it's headed by a picture of a wedding, probably from Peaky Blinders, in which the (black) priest is wearing his stole over his chasuble, both of which are green.

The Revd Sidney Chambers' liturgical practice in Grantchester was utterly bizarre, and this in a series based on books by an author whose dad had been Archbishop of Canterbury. And who can forget Richard Chamberlain as the randy cardinal in The Thornbirds? Priest entering the church in the 1930s, no biretta and hair curling over his amice. No better on secular matters, with Irish people unable to pronounce "Drogheda", and the opening sequence of a bus - an American vehicle allegedly operating in Australia and disgorging passengers into the middle of the road.

PM said...

The decline extends beyond matters strictly ecclesiastical. Inspector Morse afficcionados will recall the episode in which the cerebral sleuth puts a pompous head of house in his place by signalling that he is very well aware of the difference between the early and later Wittgenstein. Dexter and the producers obviously thought that enough of the audience would get the joke to make it worth including.

Fast forward to the 'debate' between the dreadful Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams in Oxford, chaired by Anthony Kenny. His Pig-Ignorance Dawkins harrumphed (not apologetically but belligerently as is his wont) that he had never heard of Wittgenstein.

I could understand that someone who had been a council street sweeper in Oxford for decades could never have heard of Wittgenstein, but a don? (Some people thought they were hearing too much about him, but that is another story.)

PM said...

In case readers missed it, here is an example (exposed by a Cambridge man to boot) of the fraudulent pseudo-scholarship peddled by Dawkins:


John Nolan said...

Brideshead (Granada TV, not the Beeb) was probably the most faithful adaptation of a novel ever to reach the screen. Most people picked up the howler about the Bishop of London (Bridey actually encountered the bishop in London) but I was more surprised that the devout Cordelia could not pronounce 'Quomodo sedet sola civitas'.

Peaky Blinders inhabits a fantasy world of its own, divorced from historical reality, so doesn't count. But no-one seems to have a clue about Catholic ritual, witness a recent dramatization of the Gunpowder Plot, or the death of Edward IV in The White Queen (the king dies in his wife's arms with no-one else present), or the scene in Julian Fellowes's 'Titanic' where the priest blesses the congregation at the end of Mass with the words 'Benedicat vos omnipotens Deus in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti' (and the veil has not been replaced on the chalice).

Most anachronisms, however, occur in speech. In Downton Abbey (Fellowes again) one of the characters talks about a 'learning curve' (in 1920!) and in Jane Austen adaptations actors and actresses seem unaware of early 19th century pronunciation, adopting the deplorable modern trend of 'speak as you spell'.

Alan said...

Responding to John Nolan:

I think that "authentic" language is always a conundrum for historical novelists and producers of films/TV programmes.

Generally, a balance has to be struck between authenticity and understanding, and accurate language and an excess of "verily marry gadzooks anon". I recently came across "prosthesis" in the mouth of a lawyer in the reign of Edward VI (Sansom - Shardlake series). Ariana Franklin, addressing mediaeval antisemitism in a fictional conversation between Henry II and a Jew called Isaac, makes Isaac the financier of Peterborough cathedral (diocese founded by H8) and St Albans (Queen Vic).

Similar problem with subtitles of a recent Montalbano, where a bishop referred to "mia nipote", and the subtitler went for "granddaughter" where the context required "niece".