Creative Licence vs Historical Accuracy

During the first writing process for ‘549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War’ I was struck by the vastness and complexity of a historical conflict that was merely a paragraph in my Higher History textbook. The intricacies of the politics and the particulars of each battle formed a daunting prospect. Slowly and over a period of intensive research, Robbie and I gained a firm handle on the conflict and finally began to write.

The first draft contained the story of the four miners from Prestonpans set against the backdrop of the Civil War. The narrative was very much focused on their journey, meaning that the script was a human story and not a history lesson. It soon became apparent whilst writing that our research was far from complete – we wanted to know more about our characters and their lives. We had questions we wanted the answers to, but we had a script to write and a play to produce.

This urgency meant that there were gaps in our knowledge and we filled in these spaces with educated assumptions. For example, for a moment in the third act of the play we needed a reflective pause and slower pace. There was nothing in our research indicating where Jimmy Kempton was in Spain at the time of the scene so we conveniently placed him at the Battle of the Ebro and wrote a sombre and thoughtful monologue for him.  We used the unknowns about our four miners to mould the story to what we thought worked best thematically and theatrically.

Fast forward to the second stage of development, where we have visited family members of the four miners and prominent historians. These interviews have been a fantastic resource in producing much more specific details about our characters but they have also brought new and unique creative challenges. The new depth of knowledge means that we have tiny pieces of detail building the big jigsaw that forms the play, but the drawback to this is that the story we told in the first incarnation of ‘549’ no longer works as some of the pieces don’t match.

A rudimentary example that has minor implications is the character of Jock Gilmour, played by the wonderful David Kirkwood. From speaking to Jock’s family, we have uncovered that his physical attributes were firmly placed on the ‘large’ end of the spectrum – one anecdote described his legs as perpendicular when riding his bike. Yet as it happens, David Kirkwood is the smallest and slimmest member of our cast. A fact which means that sadly, David will be immediately removed from our cast and all related promotional material.

David will of course maintain his brilliant portrayal of Jock in our next incarnation, but the example raises the question surrounding how Robbie and I balance the historical accuracy of the piece with our creative license. A more serious example concerns James Kempton. In our first script, James was portrayed as a passionate and politicized man, fighting for a cause he believed in. The truth? We now know that he travelled to Spain because he had no money – he was skint. And what’s more, James Kempton didn’t fight – he was a cook. These two facts alone create massive inconsistencies between our current theatrical narrative and what really happened.

The light these new details cast upon our story is greater than the shadow they throw upon our creative conversations. There is excitement around the laptop rather than trepidation. That said, over the coming weeks whilst ‘549’ is redeveloped there will be several tough and complex conversations around how we marry historical accuracy with creating decent theatre. The story we thought we were telling remains the same, it’s just that some of what we thought we knew has changed. The challenge now is to find a new way of telling it.