On the Small Screen...
I am not, in general, a great TV watcher. Well, how else do you think I get time to read all these books?
Nonetheless, The Tudors¸ the first season of which is currently running on BBC2, has been capturing my attention ever since I caught the second episode. It has a kind of trashy grandeur I am finding utterly compelling. It focuses on what it describes as the early years of Henry VIII’s reign (although given the liberties with the chronology, it’s really more about his middle-age).
For anyone who knows anything about the real-life Tudors, there are plenty of historical inaccuracies. Most of these are conscious, designed for artistic effect, particularly the relative ages of the characters. Not content with conflating two of Henry VIII’s sisters into character, the series has her marrying the King of Portugal rather than the King of France (and then indeed murdering him). Shakespeare did the same in his history plays , so it’s rather anal to get sniffy about this kind of thing. But if you find meticulous historical accuracy important, The Tudors is probably not the programme for you.
You won't be surprised that I relish a programme which enacts all manner of bloody palace intrigues every week. Sam Neill’s surprisingly sympathetic Cardinal Wolsey would be at home in The Dog of the North¸ and the shifting alliances, the betrayals and machinations are all the stuff of my own fiction. Visually, the series is sumptuous, and the casting is consistently excellent. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is magnificent as King Henry, played with mad energy as a psychotic egotist with almost no redeeming features (this is probably one of the more historically accurate aspects of the show). It’s a commendable risk to make the central character so utterly malignant (albeit highly charismatic). Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn is simultaneously luminous and sly, and you feel that when she and Henry get together, they will deserve each other. The supporting cast is equally well-judged, particularly Sam Neill as Wolsey, Maria Doyle Kennedy as Katherine of
The Tudors has been described as soap opera, and to a degree that’s understandable. But the insane melodrama which routinely strains credulity when deployed in Eastenders or
Notwithstanding my willingness to accept artistic licence with the facts, as a writer of fantasy I occasionally feel a sense of frustration. This is a series which would have worked equally well—if not better—as a fantasy of an imaginary land, where chronology and characters could have been manipulated without offending the pedants. In the same way, George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is a deliberately ahistorical take on the Wars of the Roses. But written as a fantasy, The Tudors would never have secured the budget for a lavish production, or a prime-time slot on BBC2. Viewers would rather watch fantasy version of real history—a fantasy which dare not speak its name—rather than accept a fantasy in its own right.
But that’s not a criticism of The Tudors. It’s just the way of the world. And you can be damn sure I will be watching tonight’s episode.