Some Advice on Historical Advising for TV; or, a discourse on my recent experiences working on Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell amongst other encounters with the televisual medium

My name is Hallie Rubenhold and I’m a period drama addict.

I’ve been hooked on great historical tales since 1986; that moment when I watched Helena Bonham Carter, trussed up as Lady Jane Grey place her dainty neck on the chopping block. As a young teen, I devoured BBC drama. I reveled in narratives about anything that involved pulling against the constraints of heavily boned clothing and a rigid society. I’ve never recovered. In fact, period drama was a gateway drug for me. My obsession with historical fact and fiction increased, gradually consuming my life. Three history degrees later, here I am.

Way back in the days when I swooned over men in tights, I swore to myself that I would one day get involved in making period films. I minored in film studies and was lucky enough to intern at a Hollywood production company where I spent a summer in Development hell, reading piles of scripts for films about alien invasions which never got made. I studied history. I took courses in creative writing. I took courses in screen writing. I taught history. I made some TV documentaries. But it wasn’t until I started writing non fiction that the opportunities to work as a historical consultant came along.

To date I’ve had some great experiences advising for TV. I’ve now worked on four productions, including City of Vice, which I helped to innovate. As I write this, my slate contains two potential period films for cinema (17th century and 19th century) and two potential 18th century dramas for TV. Potential is the operative word in this line of work. The nature of the beast means that these could take awhile to come to fruition, if they ever do.

My most recent foray into the world of historical make believe has been working as the adviser for the upcoming 7-part BBC adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Set during the early 19th century, the story follows the fortunes of two magicians and their attempts to reinstate the rule of magic in the North of England. The director, Toby Haynes and the screenwriter, Peter Harness wanted to bring as much verisimilitude to this imaginary world as possible so I was parachuted in to help out.

So, last week I took some of the actors through their paces and faced one of the most grueling Q & A sessions I’ve ever been subjected to. Not even a viva can top this. In one day I was asked about everything from the causes of the French Revolution to how to shave a man with a cut throat razor. I was required to describe the sorts of servants who might make up a gentleman’s house and how to pour wine at a formal table. Who helped a person out of a carriage? What sort of cutlery was used c.1800? What was Peterloo? What’s a scullery maid? How does a valet fold clothing? How were the dead laid out in their homes? What did Lord Byron write? Who were the major playwrights of the era? What happened if a boy from the village wanted to court a girl in service?

I’d like to think I’m fairly responsible where the truth is concerned and I’m not exactly a deft hand with a cut throat. Some things can’t be answered in an afternoon, some things don’t have black and white answers, and quite a few things require a bit of research, which is what I told the art department before cracking open my books.

This sort of work can be both overwhelming and exhilarating fun. I get to call upon a full range of my past professional experiences. I’ve discovered that my skills as a history tutor have helped me as much my instincts as a writer of historical fiction. I’ve come to understand where and how the facts may be blurred without compromising the truth in order to accommodate the drama. It not only helps to have been thoroughly immersed in the discipline of historical research and argument crafting, but those years in L.A. that I spent in acting lessons haven’t gone to waste either. Understanding what an actor does and what sort of information he or she needs to envision their character’s world has served me in an unexpected way.

But before I make this sound too rosy, I think I need to add some caveats.

One of the sorts of inquiries I get most frequently on my website is the type soliciting advice about becoming a historical consultant. There is no set answer for this. It’s not like getting a job as an accountant or a doctor. In fact, it’s not even a real job, it’s a perk of doing a handful of other jobs – teaching, writing, public speaking, spending vast amounts of unpaid time pitching documentary ideas to TV producers. My advice to those who want to do this sort of work is this:

1. It may sound harsh, but don’t give up your day job. Get a degree in history or two or three. Write books. Get a position teaching history somewhere, or at least try to secure a job that pays a steady income. Then focus your sights on this sort of (unreliable) work. Start pitching history ideas to production companies. Many films and series that get made are based on books, and often the author is taken on as the consultant. (This is how I started).

2. Historical consultancy for TV and film is not a meal in its own right. Think of it as a garnish. It’s the apple in the mouth of the roast boar.

3. Historians, become a screenwriters! TV and film needs you! This is when I get on my soapbox. I’ve often thought that rather than sitting in front of Downton Abbey and moaning about Lady Mary’s curling tongs and the ipod Bates has stowed in his breast pocket, we need to get off our critical rear ends and start writing believable stories that can be made into good drama. Who better to do this than the historian him/herself? Study screenwriting as well as history. Certainly, the best stories are generated by those who know and love what they’re writing about. And yes, one day I mean to practise what I preach and write screenplays too.

4. This work will not make you rich. However, it may open doors to all sorts of other opportunities. You’ll get to meet interesting people and get involved in an aspect of the creative process which can be hugely rewarding. What’s not to like about that?

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