When I first joined York as a history lecturer, my inaugural group of first-year students very nearly had their essays marked by Ralph Fiennes.
At the time, I was acting as historical adviser to the feature film The Duchess – based on Amanda Foreman’s bestselling biography of the eighteenth-century aristocrat, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes in the lead roles.
I had been booked to spend time on set just as the first batch of essays had come in and had taken them with me to tackle during the long days of filming. In the hustle and bustle of scene changes, I (very briefly) misplaced my bag, only to find it stowed behind Fiennes and Knightley’s chairs. As I blushingly retrieved the essays, Fiennes gamely offered to mark a few. I turned him down although I’m sure that many of my students would have welcomed his feedback.
Being involved with The Duchess was my first foray into the mysterious world of film consultancy. It proved fun but also intellectually and creatively invigorating. Since then I’ve supported a range of productions including theatre, as well as film and television, with the most recent being the BBC’s Poldark series.
The nature of my role as an advisor varies from production to production, depending on what the director and others sections of the crew want and need. Sometimes I simply support the final checking of a script, highlighting anachronisms or suggesting historical details that might enhance a particular moment in the narrative.
In other cases, I’ve worked alongside productions for well over a year, providing a source of historical advice and information at every stage of the development and for every department. For film and television productions I do the majority of my work remotely, liaising with the director, scriptwriter, script editors and heads of department who are preparing set designs and costumes.
For theatre, and for some television productions, I then join rehearsals so that I can be on hand to offer any historical detail that might be required as the cast work through the scripts and develop their characters.
For the biggest productions I also often spend a few days here and there on set, especially on days that involve complex scenes like a ball, a street scene or a market. When I do venture on to a set, my walkie-talkie name is ‘Hannah History’, which follows the film convention of naming individuals by department as well as first name to ensure that the message gets to the right place as swiftly as possible.
I have become very adept at giving three-minute lectures to buses and tents crammed full of extras, but whenever I get the chance I usually disappear off to the props trailer to see what exciting treasures have been sourced for the day’s scenes and exploit the chance to handle artefacts in a way that is impossible in a museum or archive.
My students often ask me how I became a historical advisor and when I tell them the work comes as a direct result of a PhD I am not simply trying to recruit them to graduate studies. I was approached to work on The Duchess because my doctorate focused on a closely related topic. And even now I only agree to assist with productions that I feel relate to my own areas of expertise and research interest in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century British history.
I would never, for instance, agree to assist a production that was set in wartime Britain, and I quite often recommend alternative advisers for dramas that do not sit within my own research remit. There is often very little time in the pre-production process to fact check or edit, and once the cameras start rolling only the gravest of errors can be altered. So it is critical to be able to work fast and clearly when giving advice on historical detail and that ideally requires a bank of knowledge that cannot be gleaned on the hoof.
One of the reasons that I enjoy the work so much is that I find that assisting with costume dramas fires my own academic research. Witnessing the filming of a theatre scene in The Duchess, for instance, left me thinking carefully about eighteenth-century theatres and their audiences.
As a direct result, part of my recent book (The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Eighteenth-Century London) examines the theatre and opera house in Georgian London. Working on Poldark has left me fascinated by eighteenth-century perceptions of wealth, credit and debt – areas that are proving significant to my next book.
Most of all, however, I contribute to television and film because I enjoy thinking about history in visual and creative terms, and working on a production gives me a privileged opportunity to indulge my love of character and drama.
Like many historians, I have a vivid imagination. I relish the remarkable details of the past that I often stumble across as a researcher, such as fabric swatches folded up with letters and inventories that list not only family heirlooms but also broken fans, discarded buttons and incomplete packs of playing cards shoved in a drawer.
It is these little snippets of the past, combined with grander narratives, which I try share with crew and cast members in my capacity as an adviser. Truth be told the lecturer in me also loves nothing more than creating a bibliography, and when I read a script I routinely create a fantasy library for key protagonists, imagining what eighteenth-century books, newspapers or magazines they might be reading and why. I often do this for my own satisfaction as it helps me think more clearly about the contexts relevant to certain characters.
However, I have been known to inflict these reading lists on any cast or crew member who expresses an interest in wider research. None have yet volunteered to follow up their reading by submitting a 5,000-word essay during rehearsals, but I would happily mark any that came my way.