Sunday, 1 May 2011

Day 213

This is my blog post about the royal wedding.

He had six royal weddings. Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. A couple of years ago they made a documentary about him. And by documentary I mean an epic fantasy soap opera.


The Tudors, which follows the reign of King Henry VIII, is as much based on real history as The Lion King is based on Hamlet. On one hand, that's nothing to pour scorn over - it is, as writer Michael Hirst happily admits, entertainment first and foremost. So it's a waste of time boasting your knowledge of the Tudor dynasty by sneering at this melodrama . But on the other hand, I won't forget what Phil Parker told us in his lecture - if you write something even loosely based on history then you have to take responsibility for what people "learn" from it. Many people get their information from TV and film, not from books. Just think of how many people get their Scottish history from Braveheart. The Tudors is called "The Tudors". People can and will and do get their information about The Tudors from this TV show.

Under this set-in-stone artistic license many liberties are taken. You'd be weird to not expect them. 16th century female beauty is replaced by the botoxed-up waxed-down pop stars of the 21th century, and some of the language is so contemporary that King Henry may as well be be booming "check out my bitches, y'all" from a pimped up hatchback.

Despite this, it's gloriously medieval in a larger-than-life and fantastic way, with green forests and rowdy townsfolk, people shouting "rue the day!" or "make way for the King!", and twing-twong Greensleeves music playing in the background. The correct reply to "how are you?" in the world of The Tudors is "I have gout".

The perpetual eyeline of the characters is about four foot from the ground because everyone's always bowing to one another, probably proving a nightmare for the director as everyone keeps ducking out of shot. But they're magnificent, sweeping bows - and it's no wonder, because everything about this programme is magnificent and sweeping.

Inevitably including the legendary King Henry Vee Eye Eye Eye, who is played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers (who'll forever be known to me as "Steerpike"). He's portrayed as a smouldering, wild and fickle King whose political and religious opinions are based entirely on sex, wresting matches and vain whims. In The Tudors, the historic separation of the Church of England from Rome is explained entirely by the King's lust for Anne Boleyn, who the Pope would not allow him to marry. When not whispering fiercely into people's faces or working the ticket barrier for his endless queue of saucy wenches, the King can be found slurping on fruit and wiping his mouth with the unread letters of loved ones. He's also the main reason for this programme's famously sexual content, which at times is so prominent that they genuinely hang a whole series on the King's failure to orgasm.

There's so many enjoyable characters in The Tudors that I can't mention even a 10th of them, even if they are played by Sam Neill. Some of my favourites are the King's wives; especially the flawless and wise Queen Catherine of Aragon, whose command of dignity insinuates that the promiscuous King wouldn't dare sully her by lusting after her. Anne Boleyn is even stronger a character. She's principled and sinister, with a trademark lopsided smile and delicate chopable neck. And Anne of Cleves, as beautiful as the rest of the them, is supposed to be ugly; but, as it transpires, the King's repulsion of her is satisfyingly countered by the revelation that... the King reeks.


Queen Catherine's daughter, Mary, is the most innocent and well-meaning character of them all - a beautiful red herring, given that in her eventual reign she becomes known as Bloody Mary. I learned yesterday that the actor of Mary, Sarah Bolger, is a friend of a friend. Everyone in Ireland knows one another, and that's a true fact. Still, it doesn't detract from the fact that Mary is, to me, the most fascinating character in The Tudors.

But my favourite character by far is the sneaky sneaky Thomas Cromwell. He's played by James Frain, who portrayed the similar Villefort in the 2000 adaption of The Count of Monte Cristo. Born poor, Cromwell's political ingenuity and ambition leads him to massive success. He becomes the Lord Chancellor and arguably the most powerful man in England; even more so than the King, over whom the Pope claims Cromwell holds devilish control. The Pope, the Emperor, the English nobles and the English commoners loathe the insidious Cromwell, but somehow he manages to stay alive. And Frain plays him so subtly that when his downfall finally looms all he shows of it is a shaky breath of fear. Compare that to the reactionary roars, crashes and tears of everyone else and the character of Cromwell is the most delicately played and written of every character in The Tudors; and one of the best in modern TV.


King Henry treats Cromwell physically like a dog, beating him one moment and patting him reassuringly the next. The King eventually denies his pernicious pet mercy and has him put down. The noblemen, resentful of Cromwell's rise from rags to riches, ply the executioner with alcohol so that Cromwell suffers a botched and disgusting beheading. The executioner hacks blindly at his shoulders and skull until one of the guards, repulsed by the bloodbath, grabs the axe off him and lops off the still-screaming Cromwell's head once and for all.


Each beheading scene (of which there are many) is juiced mercilessly by sudden emotional backstory. For instance, Cromwell was a merciless man who, whilst being known to the characters as a heretic and traitor, was known to the audience as being responsible for the torture and killing of countless innocents. But hours before his arrest he rejoices in the birth of his grandson. Similarly, Anne Boleyn was portrayed as manipulative and mad - before suddenly having recollections of a happy childhood. Out-of-the-blue emotional backstory is a common trick, but unneeded here, because most of the beheadings are of long-term loved characters.

So in amongst watching The Tudors, jabbering to everyone about The Tudors, writing about The Tudors, and sometimes not writing about The Tudors, I was inspired for a short time to do what everyone else did when they watched it and pick up on the historical inaccuracies. Then I decided that I really don't care. But I did get really involved in reading about the Reformists and the re-establishment of Roman Catholicism to England; of all the caricatured religious politics in The Tudors, the Reformation was by far the most interesting, and I know a lot more about it now than I did before The Tudors inspired me to research it.

Like its fellow Showtimer Dexter, The Tudors is a slightly daft but massively entertaining programme, and at the moment it's my absolute favourite. I'm sure that feeling will pass, but only when people tell me to shut up; which might not happen soon because, as it transpires, everyone else loves The Tudors too.

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