Did we like it?
A lavish, licentious ‘interpretation’ of the decadent reign of King Henry VIII, which is well-scripted and acted but at times a little too modern.
What was good about it?
• A fantastic cast led by Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry and the excellent Sam Neill as the ever-scheming Cardinal Wolsey, who plot against one another intelligently, thrillingly and plausibly. Everyone is out for themselves – Henry wants to secure his “immortality” in battle like Henry V; Wolsey has his black heart set on becoming the Pope; while Buckingham uses the anger of his daughter’s affair with Henry’s best friend Charles to give himself the courage to organise a coup d’etat against the king.
• The naivety/cynicism of US pay TV that blunders into tales of historical note – Rome for example – chucks out all the bits that might make it a little bit dull (including most of the truth) like a rampant taxidermist making a rotting leopard carcass ‘beautiful’ for a wealthy customer, before stuffing it with sex, treachery and bloody violence to drag in the viewers. It’s reached the point now that we feel that if a similar episodic drama on the life of Queen Victoria would implant a scene in which she buggers Prince Albert with some of the blunter implements of the Crown Jewels. It works as entertainment, but don’t rely on it to get you through a History GCSE.
• The detail, which while it may not be accurate it at least appeals to contemporary sensibilities of what we have been brought up to imagine Tudor England looked and sounded like – sumptuous palaces set in achingly vast country estates, boots made for war pattering along the marble floors, guards guarding nothing in particular as if they’ve stepped from the pages of a Kafka story and the king heralded by trumpets that sound as if they’ve been polished in the laps of angels.
• Most of the dialogue hurtles about the screen as aggressively as the jousting knights or sneaks furtively around like the maids into Henry’s bedchamber, with only the occasional nod to Ye Olde Englande such as “What say you, Wolsey?”
• Although it sometimes held a satirical mirror up to the modern world as when Henry made an impassioned speech for war with France after his uncle was murdered, and once he had stirred his court into a bloodthirsty frenzy he truncate and soothed the belligerence with “…And now I’m off to play!” A line that echoed that much repeated George W Bush blunder when he made a similarly rousing address to the press about the threat to world peace before concluding it by brandishing his golf club and warning: “Now watch this drive!”
• ‘Humanist’ Thomas (Jeremy Northam), the only noble character in the first episode (apart from Catherine of Aragon), Henry’s mentor who almost acts as his disembodied conscience enabling Henry to effectively have conversations and deliberate with himself, yet who is also a well-drawn role in his own right.
What was bad about it?
• The portrayal of female characters was quite abysmal, only the pragmatic Catherine of Aragon displayed an intellect above that of a toad while the rest were bit-part players used for sex or sodomy by Henry and his equally debauched cohorts. Historical accuracy is no excuse for their fawning acquiescence as that particular element of The Tudors was fed to the ravenous paper shredder hounds in the first draft of the script.
• And this is the major flaw with such dramas where the past is re-imagined to suit the tastes of modern viewers. Alongside the derailment of any meaningful female involvement, the whole piece has something of a Mr Benn episode about it by letting a someone go into the past and live out their fantasies; only this Mr Benn reads Loaded, uses prostitutes and drives quad-bikes round Welsh forests turned into unquenchable quagmires by Facebook ‘friends’ doing exactly the same. In this fantasy, Mr Benn/Henry VIII routinely seduces women/concubines, goes gallivanting off round the country hunting wild boar or takes part in jousting contests, in which the fair maidens tie their colours in the form of a ribbon around his phallic lance while the horses between their legs get all frisky and aroused while the knights sit with an icy poise atop their mount. It’s all just a bit dreary.
• Four characters are called Thomas – Thomas Cardinal Wolsey; Thomas, Henry’s mentor; Thomas the young scruffy looking vagrant; and Thomas the oscillating diplomat.
• The on screen orientation message ‘Paris, France’, as opposed to where? Paris, Texas, where Wim Wenders is looking out over a vignette of an empty American dustbowl.
• Jonathan Rhys Meyers hasn’t quite exorcised his Irish accent, but this probably didn’t matter to an American audience.
• The unnatural way in which the naked Charles edged around the bed after he was discovered in bed Buckingham with his daughter keeping his genitalia out of camera shot like a parent protecting a child from the sight of an atrocity; it seems that the Tudors indulged in every single decadent pleasure except full-frontal male nudity. Incidentally, Buckingham strikes his daughter afterwards indicating that he is, to modern viewers, an utterly evil chap who will die a very horrid death – but because he is so irredeemably malevolent it’s a death the audience will be able to savour watching. Cheap characterisation, which isn’t very common in The Tudors.