Bringing everything back home, or how Europe is reappropriating the Historical Period Drama
It’s no mistery that America tends to appropriate everything interesting and lucrative and, after seasoning it with USA flavours, sends back to the rest of the world this quite distorted result. What is most surprising is that in a short period of time this point of view becomes the official way according to all the other continents.
American production companies, strong thanks to their international language and huge budgets, didn’t even spare the history of our dear old Europe, producing tv series that share only the names with the original event and characters.
Striking example is Reign, produced by The CW, that should tell the story of the unlucky life of Mary Stuart, from her marriage to Francis II of France until her execution by order of Elizabeth I of England. The result is a XVI century version of Gossip Girl, in which the real story of the Queen of Scotland peers here and there between palace intrigues and love dramas , all dressed up in clothes from a prom ball. Paradoxically all these anachronisms are the strength of Reign, seen by the public more as a trash forbidden pleasure.
Spartacus, aired on Starz, in four seasons tells the story of Spartacus and his fellow gladiators and, with its sex&battle style, seems to be a Game of Thrones precursor. In the cast is also a scarlet Lucy Lawess that, having cast-off her Xena clothes, plays Lentulo Batiato’s wife.
Italian Renaissance is reinterpreted by Da Vinci’s Demons, aired on Starz too, in which Leonardo Da Vinci ends up meeting Vlad Tepes, the late Count Dracula.
Even Netflix couldn’t resist Italian history and in 2014 produced Marco Polo. The series, now renewed for a second season, didn’t receive many positive reviews, but at least stands out from the others in the attempt to bring the events somehow back to the origins: the actors who play Marco, his father Niccolò and his uncle Matteo are the Italian Lorenzo Richelmy, Pierfrancesco Favino and Corrado Invernizzi.
AMERICA’S BIGGEST ANTAGONIST
The UK is the big competitor of the USA, and, giving up any colonialist tendency, tends concentrate on its own history.
Downton Abbey is UK’s best shot. Ended after six seasons, the series’ protagonists are original characters who now and then meet really existed ones.
Leaving out tons of very british mini-series about real historical events or literary classics, some historical period dramas gained international recognition. Among them the most famous one is The Tudors, a series about Henry VIII from the meeting with Anne Boleyn until his death. Comforming to what seems to be a golden rule for an internationally successfull series, that is ‘there needs to be at least a nude/sex scene per episode’, even The Tudors isn’t historical inaccuracies-free, but it’s less cheeky than its american sibilings.
Adapted from Philippa Gregory’s novels, The White Queen covers the intricate events of the Wars of the Roses, from Edward IV marriage with Elizabeth Woodville (the titular white Queen), until Richard III death and Henry VII coronation. Aired in the UK on BBC One, its success in America has been weakened by a lot of comparison to Game of Thrones, even if some scenes involving nudity and sex were especially shot for the american distribution.
OUR HISTORY, OUR VOICE (BUT IN ENGLISH)
The rest of Europe is reappropriating its history, starting to produce historical period dramas about some of the most important people of each nation, still comforming to those canons that are now mainstream in the tv series world.
Internet is accomplice to this renaissance: most of these series aren’t distribuited outside their native country but see the light on ‘watch on-line’ websites and are subtitled by fans, who afterwards meet on websites such Tumblr or Facebook to talk about the episodes.
In this way the rest of the world came to know about the Turkish series Muhteşem Yüzyıl (The Magnificent Century) and its sequel Muhteşem Yüzyıl: Kösem (The Magnificen Century: Kösem) about Kosem Sultan, who started her life as a slave and then became one of the most important women of the Ottoman Empire, and Suleiman the Magnificent.
Still unaired abroad is also Carlos, Rey Imperador, Spanish series, produced by Diagonal TV, about Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.
Even though their compelling stories and great directing have nothing to be ashamed of in comparison to their fellow American or British products, those series still fight against the languare barrier, in a world where the big distribution is led by english-speaking cinematography.
To face this issue some european countries have started telling their stories adding to the recipe a spoon of anglo-saxon flavour: shot with a cast of english native-speakers, with some international celebrity to appeal to the public, those series are then dubbed in the country’s original language.
Versailles, Louis XIV story, aired in France on CANAL+, is a striking example. George Blagden, Vikings’ Athelstan, is the Sun King and he’s accompanied by a full British cast. Even though a lot of French spectators didn’t like that the most expensive series ever produced by their country was shot in English, since it was Louis XIV himself to spread the French language all over Europe, this tecnique is having success since Versailles has already been distribuited in eleven countries.
Italy is playing this card too with the series I Medici, that will air on RAI 1. Richard Madden, Game of Thrones’ Robb Stark, will appear as Cosimo de’ Medici while Giovanni de’ Medici is played by Dustin Hoffman.
It seems then that the historical period dramas are coming back to their parents, that will perhaps show the last two milleniums events in a still interesting but a bit more historically correct way.
However, compromise is always lurking: for a successfull product is now necessary a bit of English and a soap-operish style.