Return of the Black Death: Secret History

Behind the Scenes

27 March 2014 By: Dr Kenny Scott, Director

You’re making a film about the greatest catastrophe to strike medieval Britain. How do you make 2014 feel like 1349?

Our approach to filming

The obvious way is to use Dramatic Reconstruction, an expensive business involving actors, sets, costumes and scripted dialogue. It’s a perfectly acceptable film-making approach - let’s call it Men in Tights.


Skeletons

The trouble is, after you’ve invested all that time, money and effort, you sometimes find that you’ve done the opposite of what the audience want to watch. The real reason we love watching history films is because we love finding out about people who were just like us. But all those pointy hats, pointy shoes and “forsooth, sires” keep reminding us how different our ancestors were.

So during the production of Return of the Black Death, we decided to give Men in Tights a miss. Instead we focused our efforts on what our world has in common with the world of 1349. And as soon as we started thinking that way, we realised 1349 was everywhere around us.

'...the victims of the Black Death have literally returned to our streets'

For one thing, our story was ignited by an ultra-modern, present day discovery. Thanks to excavations for the Crossrail Network in London, the victims of the Black Death have literally returned to our streets, bringing new information along with their physical remains.

Bubonic Plague

Then we learned that the Bubonic Plague is still alive and well today, on nearly every continent on Earth. New untreatable disease could break out at any time, and we would be just as defenceless as our 14th century ancestors. So we decided that any 'reconstruction' in the film would not look like the past, but a nightmare vision of tomorrow. That meant sinister scenes filmed on industrial waste ground in Leeds – with emergency trenches, contamination suits, and modern body bags forming a chilling echo of medieval London’s plague pits.

First-hand family accounts

Next we learned that there are people in Britain today who are just two or three generations away from the Bubonic Plague, due to outbreaks in the 20th century. So we pulled out all the stops to find them – enlisting the help of amateur genealogy detectives in a kind of 'Who D You Think You Are?' for plague. As a result, we were able to film people with first hand family accounts - of a disease that’s supposed to be a thing of the past.

Contemporary readings of ancient texts

Finally, we discovered that an ingenious archaeologist was using Wills documents to cast new light on the victims of the Black Death. We realised that these ancient legal texts recorded the genuine 'voices' of the shoemakers, fishmongers and boatmen of medieval London. So the best people to read them on screen were not actors, but the real shoemakers, fishmongers and boatmen of today.


Reading an ancient manuscript

During filming with these volunteer members of the public, we got a real impression of the terror of the Black Death. In the Black Death epidemic of 1349, most of these ordinary citizens would have been doomed to die.

We hope the viewers of Return of the Black Death get the same sense of revelation as we got from making it. In the 14th century, the clothes were different. But the people, in all the ways that matter, were very much the same.

Return of the Black Death: Secret History synopsis

Bubonic plague is still around today, but kills in small numbers. Why did it kill so many people in 1348? The discovery of 25 medieval skeletons in London provides new answers.

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