What do you actually do?! Episode 1: Hannah Greig, Historical Adviser

Today’s episode of What Do You Actually Do!? explores the role of Historical Adviser, Hannah Greig, who has worked on notable TV and Film producstions such as The Favourite, Poldark and The Duchess.

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K: So, Hannah, what do you actually do?

H: I think I describe myself as a professional academic historian, so I have a University job and I teach and research at the University of York and I specialise in 18th century British history. But as part of that work, because of the nature of my expertise, I also consult regularly for film, television, and productions – mostly period dramas, so the kind of things you might see on Sunday nights on the BBC.

K: So how did you break into that?

H: I think it was luck, to be honest. About ten years ago now I did my first job as a consultant for a film called The Duchess. It was set in 18th century England and starred Keira Knightley as the duchess of Devonshire, so that was quite an elite, but into this whole new world for me. And then, after that I started to work quite regularly for BBC productions, so I’ve worked with Poldark for the past five series, other dramas like Death Comes to Pemberley, Gunpowder, that was on last year, Jamaica Inn, I’ve worked for those and then we have a new film as well that’s coming out this year in the US and in the UK called The Favourite which is set in the court of Queen Anne, so another film again more recently. But it was really just on the basis of being an expert in the time period that these dramas are set in, and so I was approached by the productions on the basis of that expertise.

K: So you don’t go out and pitch your services to production companies – they, as part of their research are finding “oh, who’s an expert in this field?” and come to you?

H: Yes, they usually seek out people who have a specialism in the field that they are interested in, and that the drama is set in so I don’t have an agent who is seeking work for me in the industry. I think there are experts who work in that capacity but more often is a case of production saying “well, our drama is set in 1850s France so lets ask around some academics to find out who’s expert in the field” and you get drawn into productions in that way. I often recommend other colleagues for dramas that are not my area of specialism. And, increasingly, I think, productions are seeking out the kind of highest-quality specialist expertise they can find to help underpin their dramas. Because we expect high-quality now, particularly from our television productions as well, there’s bigger budgets attached to them, they’ve got to have a cinematic element to them. That requires a high level of investment in research and pre-production planning, so there’s more space there for consultants to play a role. 

K: So, talk me through the sort of, key elements of the role. When one of these jobs comes in, what happens?

H: Well it varies from production to production depending on the director, the producer, and what it is that they’re looking for but in general terms, I’ll often be speaking to production at least a few months before filming, sometimes years. We’ll be looking at the script during development so whatever points the production feels they want to think carefully about the historical context then they will be sending materials to me. I will read scripts, I’ll do things like look for anachronisms so things that don’t sit very comfortably with me as a historian, I’ll also try to suggest details and elements which might only be evident to someone who’s got a richer understanding of the period. So, how can we work on smaller details to make it feel like a world that is informed by its own time. One of the things that we try and do with visual dramas in particular on television and film is creating a meaningful world when all of the elements come together. Sometimes, it’s the smaller details that can really help.

K: Can you give me an example of that? What kind of small detail?

H: Well, it could be things, simple things like in a market scene you might expect to see some food products or some textiles, but actually if we can make them as precise as possible… So in an 18th century street you might see a rat-catcher carrying traps to catch rats in, you might see people begging on the street who have particular aspects of their characters that tell us something about the time. So, injured soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars, or elements like that that help communicate time and place in smaller details, as well as in the ways in which the story unfolds. And I think that my… I always say with the productions that I see my role no simply, you know, being chief complainer or kind of chief pedant in the production, but it’s about trying to make sure that everyone involved in the production can make choices about what they’re doing rather than mistakes. So quite often we identify something as being problematic from a historical point of view but we retain it and keep it in because it’s valuable for other reasons. And I am totally supportive of that as a production choice, but it’s always important it’s a choice, not done by accident. And that’s what I see my role as, it’s making sure that it’s a decision-making process rather than just doing things by accident.

K: I can imagine some people might approach and “uhh you wouldn’t have had those shoes there and oh they didn’t have pineapples back in those days, get it off set” – sort of telling people what not to do and I guess real strong communication with costume departments, set departments, all that kind of stuff so you all understand where you’re coming from and it’s not a last minute thing.

H: Yea, it’s about having the communication skills and making yourself accessible, and welcoming and friendly in terms of how you communicate levels of expertise. And also, I think, to counter the idea that people judge dramas on the basis of just accuracy – is that right or wrong? – we’re very quick now on Twitter and in social media whenever a period drama comes on television we say: “oh, my goodness we wouldn’t have had that” or “that costume is slightly the wrong colour” or “they would never had said that”. And, you know, that might well be the case but that’s not the sum of the kind of decision-making processes involved in making a drama. And I think whatever role you play in that kind of production process you need to recognise that it is a whole product, that there’s a whole story that needs to be told, and a whole world that needs to be created… And history is a part of that- the way in which you can make historical content as rich as possible is to, first make yourself accessible, but also to participate in the process as early as possible. Because if the history becomes useful to the production then it can have a greater value as the process begins to unfold. 

K: Do you get to go on set sometimes, and if so, what’s the best and worst things about being on set?

H: I do get to go on set, which is fun and exciting – I like all of the equipment and the thrill of seeing a world unfolding. I don’t go as much as I used to, or if I haven’t done a drama for a while I tend to be on set more and then I… and then the novelty wears off quite quickly. I mean, they’re very busy places, everyone is working incredibly hard… and actually being on set is not the place where you want a historian saying: “oh, this is wrong” because there’s actually nothing you can do at that point. You’re too late to the game if you’re already on set and spotting things. You need to put that process in much, much earlier. But I like to go on set because it reminds me of the complexity of the process that everyone is involved with. It reminds me about the work that other people do within a drama. And of course it’s just exciting to participate in a different world for a while. And you can’t complain if you’re having a coffee with Aidan Turner…

K: That sound exciting but let’s get to the real heart of this – who’s the best celebrity you’ve spotted on set?

H: Well I’ve been lucky to work on some pretty successful dramas, and so it’s been a great privilege to meet some of the cast and also the crew who’ve been involved in this productions. So from The Duchess we had some pretty big name cast involved like Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes, and I think for a long time my favourite anecdote was the time when Ralph Fiennes phoned me to check a detail, and I was picking up a ready meal… And obviously Poldark has got a very high-profile cast involved, and a film that’s coming out soon, The Favourite, has some three very strong leads – Olivia Coleman, Rachel Wesz, and Emma Stone. I do feel incredibly privileged to see people who are very good at their job working in a way that they work very well. And I’m always very humbled by the time and effort it takes to make these dramas, for all of the cast and crew involved are often on set for 12-hour days for many many weeks, many months of the year. They work incredibly hard and it is a very important creative process for them.

K: And how are you treated on set? Do they sort of see you as a hindrance or a help, I mean, earlier you were saying you try to do it as a partnership, communicating and sharing ideas… but, does it ever feel a bit different to that?

H:  I try to keep out of the way and out of trouble as much as possible, because they’re incredibly busy so I’m usually to be found near the catering and drinking coffee and having a chat to the fireman or something, just trying to keep out of the way. But I think that I’m always struck that media productions are incredibly collaborative and everyone knows what their job involves and they try to deliver it as quickly as possible and so you want to facilitate that rather than hinder it. As I said earlier, usually being on set is the last place where you want to make big historical interventions. Everything should’ve been put in into place prior to that. But it can be useful sometimes if I’m floating around on set to answer questions. I like just having little chats about history with people, and lots of the cast and crew are often interested in finding out more information and it gives them an opportunity to ask those questions informally because there isn’t much time in the run-up to these things.

K: So you said before that the productions that you work on tend to relate directly to your research interest… do you have to have a PhD and be a professional academic to break into this kind of work? 

H: I don’t think you need a PhD and an academic background necessarily but I do think it’s useful to have a specialism. Most consultants are drawn in on the basis of field of knowledge and field of expertise. I think it’s quite hard to forge a career as a consultant without that sense of specialism, because that is really what the production is investing in – it’s that kind of high-level knowledge that they can’t access in other ways. So a friend of mine, a writer, Hallie Rubenhold, who writes a lot of 18th century books, she once described being a consultant as being the icing on top of the cake, it’s the extra thing that you do alongside the other things that you have that mean you’re acting as a historian and a specialist in a particular period of history.

But having said that, there’s lots of opportunities for people with history degrees or arts and humanities skills to work in the media, and lots of students are interested in taking my job – they can’t necessarily have that! They do often go into work in production development and in other research capacities as well.  There’s plenty of scope for clever, interesting people to get work in that industry, and of course now television drama in particular is having a boom in how it’s being funded. And the new opportunities through Netflix and very high budget dramas coming through commercial channels means that there’s a lot of drama content, and a lot of that is historical as well – we have a lot of period dramas being made. They’re very profitable, being made in Britain and then sold around the world, so it is quite a substantial market I think, and a place where students can carve out a career for themselves. But probably not necessarily in quite the way I do, which is turning up every few months and talking a bit about history and then going off again…

K: So would you say your kind of historical advising, consultancy work is pretty niche, and people who are interested in historical drama, maybe documentaries, that there’s other ways they should look to break into the sector?

H: Yes, I think my particular career pattern is fairly niche, but there are these other opportunities and there are production companies of course that really specialise in historical content. So if you think about production companies like Wall to Wall who make things like Who do you think you are? and some of the reality TV shows, history-based television shows as well; there are production companies that really focus in on historical content, so if you have a history degree, then I recommend you just send them your CV and cold call those companies who seem to be investing in that kind of drama.  The producers of Poldark, Mammoth Screen, make a range of other programmes as well, including Victoria. So when you’re watching something on television, see who’s made it, and if you loved it, write to them and tell them you loved it and that you would love to come and ask them if they’ve got any work available, or try and get some experience, and most of the production companies I know work on a basis of cold calling, door knocking still; it is quite an old fashioned way of trying to break into the industry.

K: So what do you think the key challenges or opportunities will be for the sector over the next few years? Thinking for students who might be considering this as a career area, what should they be thinking about?

H:  Well I think it’s seeing how the media industry has evolved in the last few years, to see how bigger budgets are now involved in television dramas as well.  It used to be that the really glossy productions were only possible in film; film had the budgets and you could really do period dramas well, and it was hard to do on television. But that has changed now, and also the nature of television technology means that we can create cinematic quality on television much more readily than we could when I started out in this field. So I think television has lots of opportunities now. I think that actually game technology is one of the places that we’ll see as a big boom. There’s a lot of history based games in development; that seems a very big market – issues of accuracy in storytelling that we have in film and television are evident as well in gaming, so I would expect that to be emerging as a new field of work for consultants and for people with history expertise being drawn into that multimedia platform as well.

K: Great, that sounds very exciting – a whole new podcast that we could do around gaming! Well, thank you very much for joining us today, it’s been really helpful. We’ve got some resources that we’ll be sharing with students to help research this area more and I think you’ve mentioned you’ve got some places you would recommend, so just check our website for details.  Thanks again Hannah.