This article was originally published in Radio Times magazine.


Eagle-eyed Radio Times readers regularly point out historical inaccuracies, wardrobe errors and anachronisms creeping into period dramas with a military theme. But why, when so much care and time are obviously taken, do such errors slip through?

On-set expert Paul Biddiss is no stranger to this question in his line of work, having spent 24 years in the British Army as a paratrooper before becoming a military adviser on TV series including Trigger Point, Strike Back and War and Peace, as well as Sam Mendes’s First World War epic 1917 and forthcoming films Napoleon and Gladiator 2.

“The military adviser always gets blamed,” says Biddiss. “I can only say, ‘We wouldn’t do it like that,’ but if a director wants to do something, they’re going to do it. I try to get things as close to reality as I can, but nothing’s ever going to be 100 per cent accurate. I’m creating drama, not a documentary.”

For Biddiss, the role is 60 per cent research and 40 per cent his experience of being a soldier. “Weaponry and tactics change throughout the ages, but how a soldier reacts to a situation will be the same, whether they’re carrying a spear, an M4 assault rifle or a lightsaber.”

A military adviser is involved across the board – from helping with costumes and weapons to hiring extras, where Biddiss’s selection process is nearly as tough as the Army’s. So that stunts look realistic, he tests extras’ physical and mental robustness before giving them rigorous training. Some extras have even enjoyed Biddiss’s bootcamps so much, they’ve joined the Army!

Paul Biddiss
Paul Biddiss (right) tutors Alin Sumarwata and Jamie Bamber for Strike Back. Paul Biddiss

The ideal is to bring a military adviser into the writers’ room, where everything can be thrashed out well in advance of filming. But tight budgets mean this doesn’t always happen, and if there is no military adviser on set, it’s inevitable that mistakes can occur.

Biddiss has also on occasion suggested rewrites. “The Ministry of Defence and the US Department of Defence get very worried about how drama series portray the military. No one’s an angel, there are some bad eggs, but you’ve got to give an honest representation.”

A popular TV programme he worked on once wanted to include a storyline where soldiers kill children in Afghanistan under orders, but he told them: “No, I will walk away now [if you do that].

“No soldier in the world would have subscribed to that. People will start to believe what they see on TV, but it’ll be wrong. That also puts soldiers at risk, because there are people that will use that to fuel their own agenda.” And for obvious reasons, specific technical details aren’t shown, such as the process of making a bomb or defusing it.

Despite his defence of the adviser’s role, Biddiss understands viewers’ desire for accuracy. His late father was one of the paratroopers who landed on the banks of the Suez Canal in 1956, so when it came to recreating the scene in series 2 of The Crown, he was desperate to get the job.

But when he arrived on set he had only a day to prepare and the right kit wasn’t readily available, the parachutes were all wrong and they didn’t have an actor to play the role of a jumping instructor, who dispatches the parachutists out of the aeroplane. “It’s only because I was passionate about it that I was running around like a lunatic to make it work,” recalls Biddiss.

“The director was like, ‘It’s only a bit of drama,’ and I said, ‘To you, it’s drama. To me, my dad jumped on this. If he’s looking down and I get this wrong, he’s going to haunt me.’”

For veterans, and people who have lived through events that are later dramatised, the details, of course, really do matter. “You’ve got to be very diplomatic,” Biddiss explains. “You have to understand that the production can’t always get the exact detail or the exact tank, or the director wants to do something a certain way. My job is to find a way to make it work.”

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