As someone interested in Tudor history I’m often tempted to have a peek at new television and film adaptations of the period – but have learned to temper my hopes and expectations in doing so. In the old days it was the silver-screenish hue of films like Anne of a Thousand Days and Mary Queen of Scots that only offended the avid historian mildly, with it’s overly clean cardboard castle sets and epic film era method acting. The fictional meeting of the two queens in the latter film was the most glaring piece of plot-rigging in a cinematic period that at least tried to maintain a modicum of historical accuracy. A Man for All Seasons, although a wonderful film in many ways, was a bit more strident in revisionist tinkering, where the more brutal side of Thomas Moore was conveniently sainted over. The television renditions to follow didn’t do themselves any favours in casting – Charlton Heston’s Essex in Elizabeth the Queen or Ray Winstone’s Henry in Henry VIII perhaps being the worst examples. There were slightly better matches such as Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth R, Keith Mitchell’s Henry VIII and His Six Wives, or Helen Mirren’s Elizabeth I – but in each case the historical flow is slightly hampered by cheap television production and poor supporting casts.
Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth films had a chance to set the record straight and apply new technology to the Tudor back-story. Like other recent offerings, The Other Boleyn Girl and Lady Jane, they are good-looking films with much improved costuming and props. But even the introduction of eye-popping CGI is no penance for the far greater revisionist crimes committed by these films. The misrepresentations of characters like the Duke of Anjou or Mary of Guise are barely forgivable in the first Elizabeth film – but the absurdities of the sequel become downright offensive. Raleigh facing the Armada on his own – or Elizabeth taking to the field like Joan of Arc made the film look more like Carry on Henry or a Blackadder episode rather than a serious historical epic.
So you can imagine my response when I finally sat down and watched an episode of The Tudors just to see what all the fuss was about. As far as accuracy goes it’s not just a few indiscretions for ‘poetic license’ – it does not even come close to any sort of verisimilitude whatsoever. There are myriad websites listing the hundreds of inaccuracies for each season – from small anomalies with clothes, decor, architecture, language, mannerisms, events, dates, etc, to blatant assassination of character (George Boleyn, Mark Smeaton, Thomas Tallis, and many more). It’s not that I didn’t expect a few alterations for television flow – but this was downright historical perjury! While there were one or two authentic moments in the programme, the sheer number of blatant untruths completely detracted from them.
So what is with the producers of these things – are they just cowards? A drama more closely aligned to the actual events would be a far, far, far better show. It doesn’t need to be ‘dumbed down’ and sanitized for the masses – Tudor history is riveting and full of intrigue. I can hear all the defences coming from avid viewers – “well, reality would not be fun to look at” – but they couldn’t be more wrong! This prettified simulacrum is far inferior to the real – and far less interesting. You can still have all the sex and death – but there is no need to gloss it up with overwrought mollification and modernism. As far as Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ serpentine Henry goes – why not show the piggish thug for who he was – surrounded by real women with their warts and all? Show the muck and the grime – the marauding maliciousness of those vying for power. This soap opera treatment is reductive, patronizing, nauseatingly conventional, and downright cowardly. Will a production team ever have the guts to present history with all its true grandeur – and not this drizzly pastel version?
And this is why one must simply return to books for a higher class of historical depiction. I have yet to read Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed depiction of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall but have enjoyed works by Alison Weir – and most recently Anthony Duncan’s Faversham’s Dream. The latter novel, although oscillating between 20th Century protagonists and their counterparts in Henry VIII’s time, manages an honest and stark look at the period through the eyes of a commoner. There is no Burtonesque treatment of the womanising monarch here – no MTV posturing – no Desperate Housewives encapsulisation of his poor queens and mistresses, just the sweeping ruthlessness and greed that gripped England before, during and after his reign. If only film producers would have the guts to try and show this period with such honesty and humility.