BBC defends taking liberties with the life of Charles II death

By Ian Burrell,Media,Culture Correspondent
Wednesday 12 November 2003 01:00

In one of the most powerful scenes of historical reconstruction to be shown on the BBC, an axe falls on the neck of Charles I as he kneels before his executioner in Whitehall.

But viewers of the four-part BBC blockbuster starting this Sunday may be surprised to see the king's son, who was later to become Charles II, standing close by at the 1649 regicide and splattered in his father's blood.

In reality, at the time of the execution, the teenage prince was in exile in France, where he had been living with his mother, Queen Henrietta Maria, for more than three years. The current edition of the Radio Times criticises the scene as "pure fiction".

The apparent inaccuracy in Sunday's showpiece BBC1 drama on the life of Charles II, starring Rufus Sewell, Diana Rigg and Rupert Graves, is expected to reignite the controversy over history being rewritten in an attempt to provide more gripping television.

Adrian Hodges, the programme's writer, admitted in an interview in the new edition of Radio Times that he had taken "short cuts".

He said: "Although I have used historical background as carefully as I can, I am not claiming this is exactly how things were. In reinventing a period of history there are certain short cuts that have to be taken, characters lost or changed, chronology adapted." Mr Hodges suggested it was "more important to be convincing than authentic".

He said: "I'm sure a 17th- century Londoner wouldn't recognise 90 per cent of what we're showing, but I think a 21st-century TV audience will believe and get involved in it."

Kate Harwood, the producer of the programme, Charles II - The Power and The Passion, said the opening execution scene was a "dream sequence" and was intended to show the helplessness of the teenager in doing anything to prevent his father's death.

She said: "You know the things in dreams when you are trying to act but you can't. He's there, but he can't do anything.

"Drama does simplify things. But I don't think that necessarily robs it of essential truth, which is after all more important than fact listing."

Ms Harwood said the production had included scenes that probably did not take place, such as a meeting between General George Monck, one of Cromwell's commanders, and the Duke of Buckingham, a close friend of Charles, before the Restoration. The programme also "plays with the rumour" that Charles II secretly married the mother of the Duke of Monmouth, though the king always denied it.

The television historian Michael Wood joined the accuracy debate with a scathing attack on the writer Andrew Davies, who recently dramatised the life of Queen Boudica for ITV. Mr Wood said Boudica was "off-the-wall period hokum" and that "the absurdity of script and direction only made bad history".

He said: "The first few minutes said it all. Long-haired ancient Britons roaring like England football fans, knocking back beer, muddy faces daubed in woad, loose sexual morals ... you know the sort of thing. Not the remotest inkling of what an Iron Age society might really have been like."

The historian acknowledged that Mr Davies had done a "terrific job" in his televised version of Pride and Prejudice. "Davies is a great dramatiser, but let loose in a much more distant historical period, without the safe mooring of a great text he was, at times, all at sea."



Broadcast: BBC2, May 2003

Four-parter about Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Kim Philby.

Criticism: Employs scenes that never happened, such as the spies starting a strike at university and defending a Jewish student.


Broadcast: ITV, July 2002

Two hours about the murder of Winifred Mellor by serial killer Dr Harold Shipman.

Criticism: Mrs Mellor's family branded it inaccurate and misleading over its portrayal of her daughters. Granada admitted some inaccuracies.


Broadcast: Channel Four, January 2002

Written by Jimmy "Cracker" McGovern and set in Derry in 1972, when the British army opened fire on a demonstration.

Criticism: McGovern was accused of bias and writing "fantasy".


Broadcast: ITV, September 2003

Blood-and-mud series on the Queen of the Iceni and her battles against the Romans, starring ER's Alex Kingston.

Criticism: TV historian Michael Wood condemned it as "hokum", without "the remotest inkling of what an Iron Age society might have been like".

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments