Building on British Strengths: Should You Write A Period Drama?

Roland Moore, Chris Hill, Mark Pallis and Kevin Hood joined Stephen May for a discussion of writing period drama, and whether it’s a staple of British product or becoming a cliché of our drama capabilities.

One of the main things people talk about when discussing writing period drama is the cost of then getting it made and this, plus a number of factors can make period drama frustrating for producers to consider taking on. However, the writers here point out that, done well, period productions can be very profitable entities and the budget need not be as elaborate as one might expect.

Roland Moore speaking of Land Girls surprised me by pointing out that not only was it a period drama that was cheaper than most to make, something that might be expected of the period and topic, but that it was actually about quarter of the budget of a contemporary drama. Made at a 70 years anniversary of the war and commemorating the women who were so valuable to the country during that time, it was also a topical and welcome drama for the Broadcaster to produce.

It’s hard enough to write a great script without limiting yourself too much, the writers agree, you might be given an idea of things you can’t do budget-wise but getting the material right is priority within the boundaries that you know. There is no one size fits all. And certainly that’s also the case when it comes to the language used when writing times past.

“There’s two perception’s of what period drama sounds like.” says Mark Pallis, “The one that is the real language used during the period, and the one that is the modern version of that.” There are certain ways a broadcaster may want the language of a production to be understood by the audience. Getting dialogue historically right can make them seem to have been said wrongly in today’s educated age. For instance in Garrow’s Law though the period transcripts suggested everyone said ‘was’ instead of ‘were,’ the BBC didn’t want their grammar to be that consistently dysfunctional for today’s audience and . Broadcasters of course will have educational remits that film production companies often don’t. Mark mentioned Old Bailey Online as an excellent resource where actual transcripts of court language from many historical periods can be looked at and it’s good to get a feel for what the language of the time was whether writing accurately or not. Deadwood invented a language that wasn’t the actual dialect of the time which was too dense to understand easily, but that sounded authentic and what many writers do is to get that ‘song’ of an era’s spoken word into the screenplay.

How period drama resonates with a modern audience is something that also needn’t be off-putting to writers considering historical work. While behaviour is linked to the times, propriety for instance being linked to social control, the relevance of story means that there is no reason to make a film that isn’t socially relevant now. Contemporary resonance though, only means that a film must make sense to an audience and engage them even if the things happening in that time period no longer happen now. It’s also useful to remember that equally, things do have historical importance and interest to audiences when they have had a part in our society now. The Slave Trade (in it’s historical context) doesn’t exist anymore but the wealth of our country is founded upon that trade. Kevin adds, “If a story is relevant to you then likely chances are it will be relevant to someone else.”

On the note of historical accuracy it’s an admirable trait but ultimately a writer’s job is to service the story, not history and so creative licence will be taken to get the story’s message across in the best way. Roland points out that when you get material onto TV then the production will have an historical consultant to advise on the finer points. “Do what you can but you don’t need to fact check everything.” Kevin too makes a good point when he talks about writing truth rather than the facts of a drama. “If we write the facts & nobody is interested we’ve failed. Truth is a different matter.” Research however is sometimes the best bit for them, the writers say, of writing period drama. Mark says that the level of research can depend on how critical a part of the story is, “With Garrow’s Law obviously the law research was important. Part of the fun is the immersion in that period.”

For biopics, adaptations that span a huge lifetime often have to take license and condence characters or show a certain angle of someone’s life. Normal structure always applies, even when dealing with a greater volume of potential material. Tell a story, not a biography. Looking at biopics that have been made is a great way to case study how the structures are applied. DVD bonus features often give good insights.

All objections and reservations to writing period drama quelled, the writers hung around for a bit with the delegates for some script chat and this little land girl put on her raincoat and headed home to ‘Castle Leilani’ after another epic day of the London Screenwriters’ Festival to prepare to blog it into history for posterity to enjoy!

Leilani Holmes
Festival Blogger

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