Can Heritage Costume Dramas Ever Be Truly Authentic?

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Downton Abbey is, like, actually post-modern.

Intrigue and drama carried out in period attire is a winning formula for any production company, and Downton Abbey is just one such show that has captured the minds of a global audience and transported imaginations back into the past. But, says Hannah Shimko, for all the focus on the show’s ‘authenticity’, like many costume dramas, it is actually post-modern.

Authenticity of props, setting and narrative is a complex issue both in producing costume heritage dramas, and in viewing them. The aim of the producers of Downton Abbey, and other period costume dramas, is to make the audience feel as if they are watching the scenes unfold truly in the past.

But often, much more attention is paid to the authenticity of the costumes, the dialogue, home furnishings and architecture than narrative and themes. Which, I wonder, is more important? And what, if more attention is paid to one type than the other, really is ‘authenticity’? Why is it so important and can it ever really be achieved?

Take, for instance, the recent controversy over the appearance of a plastic bottle in a promotional shot for Downton Abbey; the mere appearance of a modern convenience product cast doubt over the ‘authenticity’ of the entire production.

The costume heritage drama must feel authentic; the audience must feel as if they are receiving a trustworthy view of the past. When Claire Monk surveyed heritage film audiences for her book, Heritage Film Audiences: Period Films and Contemporary Audiences in the UK (2011), she found that what many viewers really took pleasure in was seeking out and highlighting the ‘un-authentic’ elements of the setting; they got a kick out of finding the anachronisms, the words or furnishings from the wrong time periods.

This behaviour shows just how important ‘authenticity’ is to the viewer and why it is so important for producers. Painstaking historical research is undertaken into every aspect of production to build audience confidence and avoid their own plasticbottlegate.

But is this attention to props and language what authenticity is really about? Katherine Byrne explored this very question in depth in her paper ‘Adapting heritage: Class and conservatism in Downton Abbey’ (2013).  The version of history presented by the costume heritage drama is ‘sanitised’, says Bryne, and yet, in their attempt to recreate the past, they ‘presume the possibility to obtain the truth about the past.’

Byrne argues that we, at the present, can never really know the past, as we are not living it. Contemporary writers create Downton Abbey in the present; the information and facts they utilise to create ‘authentic’ heritage dramas is gleaned from novels, archives and antiques.

Although this gives us, as the viewer, a feeling of truth and realness of the past, Byrne argues this is merely a feeling, shaped by the expectations of the audience for ‘realness’ rather than true authenticity. The writers and producers can attempt historical accuracy, but not authenticity.

To illustrate this point, Byrne suggests many of the narratives, dialogue and settings in Downton Abbey are actually post-modern; the programme deals with sexuality, feminism and war in a way that novels of the period, and people of the past, would not have fathomed.

These stories of personal identity and the narrative technique used in the show are modern creations; Mary’s sexual escapades with Viscount Gillingham or the way the characters deal with Anna’s rape suggest a modern concept of personal identity and morals. If this programme was produced in the 1920s, it is unlikely these controversial issues would have been portrayed in the same way.

As modern writers, and audiences, we can never really know how people of the past thought or felt, and it seems unlikely the writers of these heritage drama programmes are able to separate themselves from their modern sensibilities and values. So to answer the question, can heritage dramas ever be authentic?

It depends on the definition of authenticity; heritage costume dramas can never be truly accurate or genuine, as they are not created in the past with historical sensibilities and values.

But heritage costume dramas can attempt to create an authentic mise-en-scène, or feeling, which is relatively historically accurate and importantly, audiences feel as if they are being transported to the past. It is interesting to think about how you, as a reader and television audience member, consume historical stories and programmes and how important ‘authenticity’ is to you.

Hannah Shimko 3Hannah Shimko is currently pursuing a PhD in Cultural Heritage at the University of Birmingham. She spends her time visiting country houses (the topic of her PhD), reading books about country houses and watching films about country houses. She loved history from the moment she dressed up as a child and pretended to be a ‘pioneer woman.’ In her spare time she likes to eat out and cook, spend time outside and is currently under the madness of planning her upcoming wedding.


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