Conference Report: European Historical Drama in the Digital Age

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This report was written by Dr.Hannah Andrews and originally appeared on the ‘Mediating Cultural Encounters Through European Screens‘ website.

Bringing together scholars from across Europe, and across the study of film and television drama, the European Historical Drama in the Digital Age conference provided a strong platform for discussion on a range of topics: representing versions of historical past(s), the reception and understanding of heritage drama within and across national borders, the influence of national institutions and individual production companies on the fictions produced about the past, and the role of distribution and exhibition in allowing these fictions to travel.

Papers presented a complementary mix of detailed case study and contextually informed overview. In the latter category was Gunhild Agger’s (Aalborg University, DK) thorough outline of the traditions of Danish historical TV drama, from influential period piece Matador (DR, 1978 – 1981) to more recent examples such as Badehotellet (TV2, 2014 – ). She noted how each drama has a ‘telling detail’ – a small, seemingly trivial point of plot, character or mise-en-scene, which is key to unravelling the ‘attitude’ of the production.

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Paul Cooke’s (University of Leeds, UK) exploration of German production company TeamWorx (‘The DreamWorks of Europe’) showed how it has borrowed elements from popular global cinema to rework key moments in German history for contemporary audiences, showing how the films and TV dramas overlay intimate, personalised stories on macrohistorical events, in the vein of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997).

The idea of micro-and macro-history in combination informed Kim Toft Hansen’s (Aalborg University, DK) idea of the historical film having a ‘double fabula’ – a minimal fabula of events portrayed which must in some sense indicate or parallel a maximal fabula of ‘history time’. This was proposed in his fascinating account of the political and historical controversies surrounding major Danish series 1864 (DR1, for British readers, currently playing on BBC Four).

Dave Forrest’s (University of Sheffield, UK) careful dissection of the ambivalent imaginary English North represented in the Red Riding Trilogy (Channel 4, 2009) presented a similarly detailed analysis of a specific case study.

Some of the liveliest debates the conference generated was on robust methodologies for accounting for audience response and even access to such materials. Andrew Higson’s (University of York, UK) opening address to the conference indicated the value of adding to Film Studies’ tradition of close textual analysis the interpretation of various forms of empirical data. In his paper, he showed how some of the findings of the research of MeCETES’s York team could contribute to this methodological widening of the field.

Ib Bondebjerg (University of Copenhagen, DK) presented an intriguing set of empirical data on the audiences of UK historical drama in Denmark.  His quantitative analysis of television schedules as a means of demonstrating the volumes of British drama offered to Danish audiences prompted the question of the influence of VOD and streaming, though, as Bjondeberg rightly pointed out, the unwillingness of major players like Netflix to share user data renders it almost impossible to gauge these effects with any real accuracy.

To complement the idea of changes for a digital age, the conference came to a close with a novelty: the live broadcast from TFTV’s own television studio of discussions with Nick Wild and Alastair Maclean-Clark of 360 Degrees Media and Screen Yorkshire’s Hugo Heppell live from the television studio. This took place against a digitally produced backdrop that had a suitably historical feel, though I couldn’t quite work out if this was a Medieval chamber or an Egyptian sarcophagus!

This playfully demonstrated the possibilities of digital technologies like green screen and simulcast for the creation and dissemination of heritage images. The conversation itself focused on the practicalities of producing historical film and television drama – in procuring funding (and, in the case of Screen Yorkshire, of doing so under the opportunities and constraints of the European Regional Development Fund), in finding a market, and in creating convincing mise-en-scenes on low budgets.

Overall, the day showcased the range of approaches to the European historical drama currently being undertaken, and provided good evidence that this topic will reward the careful attention granted it by the MeCETES project and other scholars in the field. In an age where Europe as a political entity and a cultural idea is under various threats, the continued circulation of fictions about our past can provide stronger foundations for understanding of our present and future.

However, with limited circulation of film and TV content outside the originating nation, the continued dominance of non-European film and TV in national markets, and the frustrations of transcultural exchange, the role of film and television in producing a sense of European identity is currently more muted than we might hope.

Dr Hannah Andrews is a Lecturer at the University of York’s Department of Theatre, Film and Television. Her latest publication is Television and British Cinema: Convergence and Divergence since 1990 (Palgrave, 2014).

The European Historical Drama in the Digital Age conference was organised by the MeCETES project with the financial support of the University of York’s Centre for Digital Heritage and the Department of Theatre, Film and Television.