Was Queen Elizabeth I a virgin or did she have a lusty fling with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, all ruffs and petticoats and four- poster beds?
If you are a film director, there is no question which version is more likely to appeal to financial backers, especially if you can cast Joseph Fiennes as the monarch's lover.
Historians, of course, are aghast. Working Title, the company that made Four Weddings and a Funeral, are proposing to take major liberties with the historical record. and not even giving the venerable Sir John Gielgud the role of the Pope is going to quieten their ire. And yet . . . perhaps they should be glad that any version of history still has purchase inside popular culture. The Historical Association, the main membership body for academic historians and teachers of the subject, needs all the friends it can get - it has even invited the novelist Beryl Bainbridge along to a meeting next week, presumably on the grounds that Bainbridge's fiction (including a successful reworking of the Titanic story, anticipating the huge success of James Cameron's film) is as near many people get these days to the past. The meeting is to inaugurate what the Historical Association hopes will snowball into a high-profile campaign to persuade the public, and especially members of the Government and its curriculum quangos, that history is in peril. As a bald proposition, that does not carry much weight. History in universities is shining brightly - the recent return to the United Kingdom of such stars of the professional firmament as David Cannadine and his wife, Linda Colley, has added to the historiographical excitement. Numbers are well up for A-level history, and at GCSE the percentage of history entrants getting A stars, A and B grades is twice that in English and mathematics. But for all that, the historians are worried, especially about their posterity. The number of candidates entered for GCSE history has fallen by 20,000 over the past two years. A couple of months ago, the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, made them shiver when he proposed to "relax" the non-core subjects in the national curriculum - history and geography prime specimens - in order to allow primary- school children to concentrate on attaining the official targets for numeracy and literacy. The national curriculum at large is to be reviewed. This fact was announced by the Tories three years ago. Labour is now consulting on the principles that should underpin the revision which is to be carried out by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, starting this summer, with a view to putting the new construction in place in the year 2000. …