Last night I watched the first part of the mini series 'Casualty 1907' which is set in the London Hospital (the facade of which is remarkably unchanged a century later) and which states itself to be based on real cases and records from the hospital books of the time. The opening titles included matter of fact statements about life in 1907 East London - things that are relevant to me because that's the year my East London Jewish grandmother was born. The life expectancy was 45 - my age now. One in seven children under five died. Gang rivalry and gun crime were rampant.
There were aspects of the story that must owe more to 21st century thinking - I'm not really convinced a nurse would be able to use the hospital telephone to call her doctor boyfriend at his club - but it was an interesting and fairly unsentimental protrayal of what life might have been like, at least in a rather soapy version of 1907 East London.
What it left me wondering though, was a bit more generic, about the relationship between historical facts and fictional portrayal, and, at least to an extent, how and when this crosses over from being 'history' to 'historical fiction/drama.' And then, beyond that, what the impact - potential or actual - is on the reader/viewer. Setting 'Casualty 2007' alongside 'Casualty' doesn't entirely work because the latter is much more obviously soapy, though now and then it does explore issues in enough depth to make the viewer think or the BBC put up a help line number. There is at least some expectation that drama will engage us beyond mere entertainment. There are also things that don't change - at least as portrayed by the BBC - hospital infections, tensions over finance and complicated human relationships, to name but three.
Historical drama isn't history, but good use of historical resources give it credibility and the potential to prompt more critical engagement with ideas. Is there a sense that this is on a spectrum (my favourite model!!) which has dry, dusty, historical facts at one end and purely fictive speculation at the other? Might it be that if our denominational history shunted more towards historically informed story telling it might engage more people and, just maybe, that being a tad more entertaining and tense it might lean towards educational engagement too? This is not an original idea, real historians (though largley outside the UK) have been playing with it for decades, but it has made me wonder... And should the BBC want a starting point, I'm sure the Horsley Down story, so beloved by our denominational historians, would lend itself to a week or three of dramatisation!