Historians can use these films and their artistic portrayals as evidence for the interests and public perceptions of the time period. Due to the volume of media that surrounds key eras such as the Tudors, the Regency, and the Second World War, it is easy to garner a sense of the topics which are perennially popular, while also marking the ebb and flow of other areas. This can serve as an interesting avenue for analysis of how contemporaries can use the media as a lens to question their own ideas of identity, politics, and statehood. We are at the moment running through a period of romanticisation and the dominance of the individual, largely fuelled by the social conceptions of ‘romanticising your life’ and ‘being your own main character.’ The stories being told mostly play with these narratives and serve as models for emulation.
This analysis can also be applied retrospectively and serve as evidence of historical public opinions. Take M*A*S*H*, a television series between 1972 and 1983 that revolved around a US Army medical unit during the Korean War. Depicting events of the 1950s, it weaves historical elements into its storylines, and we see new medical inventions and surgical techniques evolve in line with the developments of the past. We even see a handful of Christmases and the turning of the New Year, and the season finale ends with the war and mass exodus from Korea. However, it is mostly seen as a reflection of the opinions of the American public towards the then-ongoing Vietnam War. It is saturated with scepticism and distaste for conflict, treading a fine line between commenting on its historical setting and active protest of the futility of warfare. It analyses trauma and the atrocities that the Americans have inflicted and questions the purpose of war generally under its veil as a comedy.
Comedy is often a vehicle for producers to question traditional narratives, with the British Blackadder series (1983-1989) also playing with the past to make political statements. Blackadder Goes Forth, set in the trenches of the First World War, expounds similarly to M*A*S*H* on the dire conditions and pointlessness of war, as well as the incompetence of political leaders. Blackadder II and Blackadder III also hinge on the contrariness of their leaders (Elizabeth II and Prince George, later George IV, respectively). Both the Falklands War and the Miner’s Strike coincided with the development of the series, each turbulent events which played on the reputation of the government. The historical represented here is therefore twofold: a digital representation of the past via media, but also as an analysis of underlying politics.
Media can also see a surge in themes during significant commemorative periods. Most recently, between 2014-2018 there was a surge in productions that revolved around the First World War riding the wave of commemoration and reflection around the centenary of its occurrence. The BBC commissioned countless projects under the banner ‘World War One Centenary Season,’ commissioning over 130 TV and radio projects surrounding the period, such as The Crimson Field and 37 Days. There was a surge in the film industry too, from Testament of Youth to 1917 (though released in 2019), fuelling an active engagement with the past thanks to the hyperawareness the public had of the First World War surrounding its centenary.
While historians may bemoan films that deviate from the held narrative, they are not as harmful as they are made out to be – to suggest that the public would be misled by these misrepresentations is to infantilise the audience. No one is going to think that they danced to Taylor Swift in the 1810s, nor that the Queen of France wore Converse. Indeed, film and TV shows such as these are less dangerous than documentaries which trade on the premise of being fact but are instead filled with aliens, conspiracy theories, and Holocaust denial. Historians can use these anachronisms to identify trends in public perceptions, as well as opening the floor for further discussions, books, and other media projects. This article has referenced over twenty historical productions, but there are hundreds more out there to be experienced and it would be impossible to consume all of them. There will be a period and a subgenre for everyone – they just need to find it. Films and TV shows are more accessible to the general populace and allow individuals to broaden their horizons beyond their everyday.