Today I finished my viewing marathon of ‘The Tudors’, a recent TV series set in the court of Henry VIII and following the story of him, his courtiers, six wives, and three children. It was the first time I watched the series.
I enjoy adaptations focusing on this era very much as it has always been an area of history which interests me. As such, I have always been sensitive to historical inaccuracies in film and television adaptations, but have not led that stop me appreciating them as works of art and/or entertainment.
Previous films and series focusing on this area which I have viewed and enjoyed have included the 1970 miniseries ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ (six plays, one for each wife, and Keith Michell as Henry – followed by a much shorter film version entitled ‘Henry VIII and his Six Wives’ in 1972), its sequel ‘Elizabeth R’, with Glenda Jackson; the TV and film versions of Philippa Gregory’s ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ about Mary and Anne Boleyn (the first with Jared Harris as Henry, the second with Eric Bana); the Cockney ‘Henry VIII’ with Ray Winstone; the 1933 film of ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’ with Charles Laughton; and the BBC Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VIII’ with John Stride.
‘The Tudors’ didn’t have immediate promise on paper, as it seemed to present the political and personal machinations of the court as basically the twin ratings pullers of sex and violence. However, in the performance of Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry, convincingly becoming more aged and weary as the series progresses (although not the grossly fat monarch of legend), we have a strong centre around which an array of character parts (Sam Neill as Wolsey, Peter O’Toole and Max von Sydow as Pope and Cardinal, Jeremy Northam as Thomas More, Bosco Hogan as John Fisher, James Frain as Thomas Cromwell, Anthony Brophy as Chapuys, Simon Ward as Bishop Gardiner) and variable performances as the wives (Maria Doyle Kennedy (a dignified Catherine of Aragon), Joss Stone (a surprisingly touching Anne of Cleves), and Joely Richardson (graceful Catherine Parr) coming across rather better than Natalie Dormer (a pouting and preening Anne Boleyn), Tamzin Merchant (a truly irritating Catherine Howard), and the two Jane Seymours, Anita Briem and Annabelle Wallis (so colourless I didn’t immediately notice the cast change!)) form a watchable fabric within a superbly shot and plotted erotic thriller.
As a potted history across 38 episodes, there are many glaring anachronisms which can cause offence to those who know the period well – the merger of the King’s sisters Mary and Margaret into one character, the changing of the ages and family situations of Charles Brandon and Robert Aske, the supposed affairs and attractions between people where little evidence exists, and a disregard for chronology. However given dramatic licence, this series stands as a superb modern achievement, with sumptuous sets, beautiful colours, and some truly memorable moments. As Brandon, Henry Cavill doesn’t really convince until the fourth series, when his youthful indiscretions and military cruelty appear to be behind him.
One demerit on this series though has to be the depiction of the future Queen Elizabeth, who is colourless, passionless, and characterless, in contrast to her sister the future Queen Mary who emerges fully rounded but with a glint of the ruthlessness that would brand her forever as ‘Bloody’ Mary in years to come. Sarah Bolger is quite possibly the best Mary ever put onto film or television. Only Kathy Burke in ‘Elizabeth’ (the Cate Blanchett film) has been as memorable.
In terms of television repeats, the satellite channel Sony TV has shown the first series of ‘The Tudors’ a couple of times, but I watched it all from the DVD sets, which are nicely packaged with a small number of featurettes putting the historical events into perspective, including a look at Hampton Court and the legacy of Henry’s reign.