Design: To be accurate, or not to be?

To be accurate or not to be, designers wonder

Designers on historical dramas live with an ever-present danger: sharp-eyed viewers ready to pounce on any anachronisms — real or imagined.

Production designer Tom Conroy chuckles over criticism from a British blogger objecting to what appeared to him to be radiators visible in the chambers of King Henry VIII during an episode of Showtime’s “The Tudors.” “We placed columns behind the king’s throne that were fluted and painted gold,” says Conroy. “They resembled radiators from a certain angle.”

Conroy’s experience is typical for designers on TV’s handful of period shows, including “Tudors,” Starz’s “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” HBO’s “The Pacific” and AMC’s “Mad Men.” They sometimes veer from perfect historic recreations but insist their departures from historical accuracy are focused on enhancing the drama.

Thus, some costumes in “Tudors” more accurately resemble Italian and French era garb than less ornate English finery. In “Spartacus,” historically accurate drawings from ancient Rome are delicately, but inaccurately, etched onto leatherwear, and so on.

Often it’s simply impossible to flawlessly replicate certain things. On “Pacific,” for instance, filmmakers couldn’t visit each battle location — the entire series was shot in Australia.

“We endeavor to get it right, but it is within parameters how we deal with particular logistics,” says production designer Anthony Pratt. “At the end of the day, it’s an approximation; that’s inevitable.”

Sometimes the sniping is misguided. “Tudors” costume designer Joan Bergin has been accused of taking liberties with women’s plunging necklines but insists she found comments on low-cut dresses in an obscure ancient diary.

“We have many different references,” she says. “I based Anne of Cleves’ wedding dress on the painting of Holbein (Henry’s court artist), but for Anne’s family, I went with the influence of Cranach. They are much different perspectives.”

“Mad Men” production designer Dan Bishop says simple cost savings were the reason he built a barbershop out of Masonite rather than laminates used in the period.

Refereneces to the ’60s on “Mad Men” are plentiful but sometimes contradictory, and details can be murky. “In those cases, you rely on creative ingenuity of our ancestors,” Bishop says. “If raw materials and manufacturing techniques were there, then you decide the particular thing could have existed, even if you don’t have an exact example in your research.”

Designers sometimes also take liberties for thematic reasons. Bergin says one important idea in “Tudors” was that Henry grows wealthier over time. So she purchased a collection of colorful vintage fabrics for the show at a charity auction. The fabrics were not Tudor but they were “so sumptuous that they fit the grandeur of the Tudors,” she says.

“Spartacus” is largely a fantasy, so costume designer Barbara Darragh has leeway to mix and match liberally.

“You take elements of history and then add original things,” she says. “Then it’s a question of where do you go from there. (That’s why) we made the leather etchings.” Since the show’s fight scenes are shot with high-speed HD cameras, “that (gives) viewers details of that beautiful work.”

Darragh says mixing influences from different time periods and regions is often logical. “In Rome, Gauls, Germans, British and North Africans were all mixed up.”

The bottom line, the designers say, is there’s really no such thing as a totally accurate TV re-creation of any historical era. “You hope that you create a reality which is convincing onscreen in its own terms,” Pratt says.