Television

Historical drama shows with real-life origins on CBC Gem

Learn about history as you binge watch these 9 historical drama shows on CBC Gem.

Learn about history as you binge watch these 9 historical dramas.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars as King Henry VIII in the historical TV series The Tudors. ((CBC))

From the beautifully recreated sets to masterfully stitched costumes to impeccable acting and accompanying complex narratives, historical dramas have dominated the TV and film world for decades, with no intention of stopping.

More often than not, they are loosely based on or inspired by true stories with narratives that may include factually accurate bits and references to real-life or events that have happened. For period stories to really take shape on screen, gaps need to be filled. Once that happens, the works become based on truth but not all truth, therefore, partly fictionalized with real-life origins. 

Whatever the case, we are fortunate to be able to watch these brilliant works of art and learn about history through immersive stories from the periods we'll never be able to experience in real life — unless time travel becomes a thing and we all know where that's at — and go there through the lenses of the prolific screen masters who allow us to view the past in the first place, sometimes even in a different light.

Shows available on CBC Gem

Some are set at the turn of the 20th century and some go way back to the 16th century, here is a list of historical dramas with real-life origins that you can binge watch on CBC Gem.

X Company, TV series (3 Seasons)

Set in: WWII

About: Inspired by remarkable true stories, X Company is about the origin of spycraft, the birth of mass propaganda, the first fights against terror, and the heroes that led the charge to change our world.

It's an emotionally driven adventure drama, set in the thrilling and dangerous world of WWII espionage and covert operations that follows the stories of five highly skilled young recruits — Canadian, American and British — torn from their ordinary lives to train as agents in Camp X: an ultra-secret training facility on the shores of Lake Ontario. 

The agents parachute behind enemy lines, where they're fair game for torture and execution. From elegant hotels to hell-holes in the field, it's one risky operation after another, masterminded by the brains of Camp X. 

Cast: Evelyn Brochu, Jack Laskey, Warren Brown, Dustin Milligan, Connor Price, Hugh Dillon and Lara Jean Chorostecki.


The Tudors, TV series (4 Seasons) 

Set in: 16th Century

About: The Tudors tells the incredible tale of the young, powerful, seductive, competitive and lustful King Henry VIII, focusing on the tumultuous early years of his nearly 40-year reign and his numerous political relationships and marriages.

It's a history-based drama set in 16th-century England following the life of a monarch as he navigates the intrigues of the English court and the human heart.

Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Henry Cavill, Natalie Dormer, Jeremy Northam, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Sam Neill, James Frain and Peter O'Toole.


Murdoch Mysteries, TV series (13th Season airing now)

Set in: 19th Century / turn of the 20th century

About: Murdoch Mysteries is a one-hour drama series, based on the Detective Murdoch eight book series by Maureen Jennings. The series explores the intriguing world of William Murdoch, a methodical and handsome detective who pioneers innovative forensic techniques to solve some of the city's most gruesome murders, most of which are based on real cases that happened in Victorian Toronto. 

The development of the original William Murdoch character was inspired by a combination of real life people, "the first great detective of the Ontario Provincial Police," John Wilson Murray who was appointed in 1875, as well as a priest that Jennings knew in University and was insanely in love with.

Cast: Yannick Bisson, Hélène Joy, Jonny Harris and Thomas Craig.


Madiba, TV mini-series ( 6 Episodes)

Set in: Mid 1940s to mid 1990s.

About: Madiba, the ancestral family name of Nelson Mandela's clan, takes an intimate look at the early ties that shaped him, his close friendships, personal relationships, and political alliances.

It's a drama miniseries documenting the true lifelong struggle of Xhosa human rights activist, lawyer, political prisoner, and eventual president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, who overthrew the oppressive regime of institutionalized racism and segregation known as apartheid. 

Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Orlando Jones, David Harewood, Michael Nyqvist, Terry Pheto, Jason Kennett and Kate Liquorish.


Banished, TV mini-series (7 Episodes)

Set in: 18th Century

About: Inspired by true events, in 1788, when Britain established a penal colony in Australia where they sent convicts as punishment for their crimes. This historical seven-part drama follows the convicts who live alongside soldiers who guard them as they try to live their new lives with new rules where relationships between convicts are not allowed but a few break the rules. The soldiers also have to adjust.

Cast: Orla Brady, Ewen Bremner, MyAnna Buring, Ryan Corr, David Dawson, Ned Dennehy, Brooke Herman, David Wenham.


The Miniaturist, TV mini-series (3 Episodes)

Set in: 17the Century

About: In 1686, a young woman marries a wealthy man to save her family fortunes. As a wedding present he gives her a dollhouse, which she furnishes with items sent by an anonymous miniaturist, and the lifelike miniatures start eerily foreshadowing her fate. The series is based on a 2014 debut novel of the same name by the English actress and author Jessie Burton.

The novel was inspired by Petronella Oortman's doll's house on display at the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam. It does not otherwise attempt to be a biographical novel.

Cast: Romola Garai, Alex Hassell, Hayley Squire, Paapa Essiedu, Emily Berrington, Geoffrey Streatfeild, Aislín McGuckin, Anya Taylor-Joy.


Das Boot, TV series (1 Season)

Set in: 1942

About: Das Boot (German pronunciation: [das ˈboːt] translates to "The Boat"). During the Autumn of 1942, in occupied France, German U-boat U-612 is now ready for its maiden voyage, preparing to head into the increasingly brutal warfare with its young crewmen, including the new captain, Klaus Hoffmann.

It's an adaptation of a 1973 novel of the same name by Lothar-Günther Buchheim and his 1995 sequel Die Festung which are loosely based on his wartime experiences. It's a fictionalised autobiographical account with several alterations to the plot and characters as compared to the book. Both the novel and the series had a much darker ending than in reality.

Cast: Rick Okon, Vicky Krieps, Robert Stadlober, Tom Wlaschiha, Rainer Bock, Thierry Fremont, August Wittgenstein, Leonard Scheiche.


Little Dorritt, TV mini-series (8 Episodes) 

Set in: 1820s

About: This gripping mini series brings to life Dickens's powerful story of struggle and hardship in 1820s London. The series follows Amy Dorrit who's trying to earn money for the family and looks after her father, a long term inmate of Marshalsea debtors' prison. When Arthur Clennam returns to England after many years abroad, their lives transform.

Amy, the character in Little Dorrit, was inspired by Mary Ann Cooper (born Mitton), whom Dickens sometimes visited along with her family and called Little Dorrit. Although contested by some, it is believed that they lived in The Cedars, a house on Hatton Road west of London which is now the site under the east end of London Heathrow Airport. 

Cast: Claire Foy, Matthew Macfadyen, Judy Parfitt, Tom Courtenay, Andy Serkis, Eddie Marsan, Emma Pierson, James Fleet.


The Book of Negroes, TV mini-series (6 Episodes)

Set in: 16th Century

About: Canadian writer Lawrence Hill's award winning novel The Book of Negroes which is based on a real document of the same name was turned into a six-part miniseries recounting the harrowing journey of Aminata Diallo and her return home after being abducted from her village in West Africa and forced into slavery at eleven years old. 

The series follows her arduous ocean crossing to South Carolina plantation — where she has to keep the attentions of her jealous slave master at bay — and her relationship with Chekura, a fellow slave from West Africa who captured her and later submitted himself into slavery in order to find her. The show is a true representation of the book and though some characters are fictional, the story is based on historical research.

Cast: Aunjanue Ellis, Lyriq Bent, Cuba Gooding Jr., Louis Gossett Jr., Allan Hawko, Ben Chaplin.


Watch these shows and films on CBC Gem.

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