Faced with complaints about the historical accuracy of the recent remake of The 39 Steps, Ben Stephenson (for it is he) has come out of his corner fighting and said, "...for me, the purpose of drama is to entertain, not to be slavish about detail. I think that absolute dedication to perfect detail is something for a documentary and not something for a drama.It's different with something like The Diary of Anne Frank, because that's a true story. At the end of the day, the story of The 39 Steps is quite far-fetched. The question is: for the seven million people who watched it, did it feel authentic, did it create a sense of period? The 39 Steps just isn't a realistic story, in the way that Spooks isn't typical 21st century London. We were creating a realistic world within a world - a world of damsels and heroes and a huge amount of excitement. That, for me, is the priority. Did it create that world? It absolutely did.
"That's not to say that we don't work increasingly hard to get everything right. But it's hard to get all the details right when it's a 21st century drama, never mind anything earlier."
Okay, the howlers in The 39 Steps wouldn't have been obvious to the bulk of the people who watched it. There's stuff which might have been more obvious to those of us who had actually read the novel, but that's another conversation.
But what interests me is Ben Stephenson's apparent commitment to `entertainment' over accuracy. So I'd like to suggest a couple of shows. How about 1066, where William The Conqueror defeats King Harold by the crafty use of flamethrowers, assault weapons and amphibious troop carriers? Or The Battle Of Britain, in which the plucky pilots of the RAF use their Harriers to defeat the Luftwaffe? Historically-accurate? No, but who cares? It'd be exciting and entertaining.
What Ben doesn't appear to understand is that, while these are all obviously entertainments, people do pick up little bits of period detail from them. If those details aren't accurate, they slowly build up into an inaccurate picture of the period.
Doesn't matter? Well, let's think about the portrayal of the American West in popular culture. It's only in the past twenty or thirty years that the process of mythologising which began with the dime novels and found its greatest flowering in Hollywood has seen some reverses. (I'm not including academics such as Dee Brown or Evan S Connell here - I'm talking about popular culture)
I had this row some years ago with Stephen King's Polish translator - there's a section in The Dead Zone where Johnny Smith experiences the German invasion of Poland, and it's presented as taking place in a thunderstorm. In reality, the German invasion happened on a gorgeous late-Summer day. My friend - who is Polish and in my opinion ought to have known better - said it was justifiable because the scene captured the spirit of the event. I thought King should have got it right, because his readers trust what he says, and they'll believe it, even if it's wrong.
So, is it important? This is entertainment, right? It's bubblegum and people don't take it seriously, right?
I don't think so. The nature of education today means that all we learn at school is a broad sweep of history - names, dates, events, to be learned by rote. We get the details elsewhere - from further reading and research, if we can be bothered, and from popular culture. Popular culture has to be entertaining in order to stay popular, and for the purposes of entertainment some gnarly factual details may need to be elided or rewritten altogether. But for the bulk of the population, popular culture is their point of contact with history. This stuff all builds up. There will be film-makers in years to come who write pre-1914 dramas and will take the errors in The 39 Steps as gospel. And on and on until the drama becomes history. And history becomes an inconvenient thing academics with no sense of `entertainment' do. The changes of detail may be small for each drama, but they build up, and in the popular imagination they become what actually happened.
And so I have to take exception with Ben Stephenson. If you're making an historical drama you have an obligation to get stuff right. I appreciate the difficulty in finding a period biplane, but seriously, how much more would it have cost not to have it firing on Hannay?
And would it have cost much more to finally film the book properly?