The English Civil War was one of the most turbulent periods of British history.
Between 1642 and 1651, the population of the British Isles would suffer a proportionally greater loss of life than it did during the First World War and the nine years of war would result in the deaths of over a quarter of a million. The destruction and devastating loss of life would eventually lead to the entrenching of Parliament as the primary source of government, the radically reduced power of the monarchy, and the formation of the first permanent and professional army in England.
But for all the monuments and plaques across the country, the film and television industry has largely overlooked the period. There have been a few exceptions — perhaps most notably the Richard Harris film, Cromwell — but why, compared to other periods of British history, has the English Civil War not generated the same level of interest, and what does the future hold for the 17th Century on screen? In the second part of his look at portrayals of the period on screen (part one is here), Earl of Manchester’s member David Rowlinson takes a look…
Money, Money, Money
Every film and television series, regardless of its budget, needs investment. The British film industry has always struggled when it comes to raising funds, and historical dramas are notoriously expensive, so it’s no surprise that the English Civil War, and perhaps the genre of the historical drama as a whole, has been somewhat overlooked by the film and TV industry. While there’s always the chance of a good performance at the box office or high ratings, studios are only likely to give the green light if they think a production is going to appeal to a wide audience, which brings us to…
Before a production can hope for any investment, it needs to know that if it were to be made, there would be enough people wanting to see it to justify the studio putting their time and money into it. Other historical films and series that have proved successful, particularly those set in ancient Rome or the Tudor dynasty, have done well because the periods of history they portray are well known to an international audience. The English Civil War on the other hand, has not had the focus its importance deserves, to the point where there are now many misconceptions that simplify the war. There are not many examples of the English Civil War in film or TV, and those that exist are littered with damaging inaccuracies.
Films such as the 2003, To Kill A King, which flopped with both audiences and critics alike, discourage other filmmakers from examining the period and attempting to rectify the inaccuracies that have gone before. Until productions begin to portray the English Civil War accurately, its importance in British, and global, history will not be recognised to the extent it should. However, this may not be too far from happening…
While it may be a while before the English Civil War appears again on screen, the 17th Century as a whole is beginning to show signs of a resurgence in film and TV. Since 2008 there have been several notable productions, each with their own take on the 17th century. The 2008 mini-series, The Devil’s Whore, was successful enough to warrant a sequel, The New World, and indeed the European settling of the Americas and the establishment of the colonies looks to be a setting new productions are eager to explore.
Films like the chilling horror, The Witch, and the English Civil War film, A Field In England, suggest that the 17th Century can be a setting for all kinds of genres and not just the traditional historical drama, and studios are beginning to show signs of faith in the era once again.
Sky 1’s Jamestown, which tells the story of women’s arrival at the colony of the same name, was commissioned for a second series before the first episode had even been broadcast, so for the decades of uncertainty surrounding the 17th Century on screen, its future is now beginning to look far more promising.