Why I can't watch historical dramas

Last night I settled down in front of Elizabeth and a fine time I had, mostly thanks to Geoffrey Rush, though anything with lots of beards, silly trousers and melodrama tends to keep me happy.

On the downside, it took me about twice as long as the film’s two hour running time to get through it. Why? Because I had to keep looking things up.

I’m pretty bad at watching films at the best of times, because I’m constantly leaping up to check IMDB to put a name to a familiar actor’s face. Films swarming with aging English thespians are the worst for this, which already accounts for a chunk of my research over Elizabeth.

But more significant than this was my increasingly obsessive need to verify the historical inaccuracy of the film. I don’t mean the large-scale historical inaccuracies – as my A-level history came flooding back to me I had no need of wikipedia to chuckle smugly over the liberties taken with historical fact, like the bonkers chronology, or Elizabeth’s completely fictional meeting with Queen Mary, or the bit where Prospero dispatches James Bond to kill Queen Elizabeth.

No, it was the tiny details that got to me, questions like: did Queen Mary have a personal dwarf? (“Dwarves were not uncommon in European courts of the period”, apparently.) Or was the Duc D’Anjou a cross-dresser? (Nope; his older brother, who also courted Elizabeth, was rumoured to be a bit girly, but only by his enemies, so whichever way you look at it Elizabeth is Protestant propaganda).

By the time the film ended I had read up on most of the Medici family, the minituae of 16th century European history at my fingertips for the first time in ten years. Yet one thing continues to elude me, the answer to the question: isn’t that organ sound in the coronation scene rather inauthentic?

My first response was one of musical scorn: yes! that organ sound is completely inauthentic, just what filmmakers think music sounded like in those days, for this choral music would never have been accompanied at all! Then a seed of doubt made me check that fact and I found that, possibly, even in Elizabethan times an organ might have accompanied music in a Cathedral. I still felt the organ sound was considerably larger than the chamber organ sound I would expect from that era – my understanding is that the English didn’t start to get full-on huge organs until after the reign of Cromwell (who had all the old ones destroyed). Yet large organs did begin to appear on the continent as early as the 13th century, so perhaps England did have some?

If any organists out there have the answer, I’d be most grateful.

Fortunately I do have enough musical knowledge to spot that the underscore near the end of the film of Elgar’s Nimrod souped up with a female soprano and unsubtlely segueing into Mozart’s requiem was wrong, wrong, wrong. And not just historically.

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