Friday, November 02, 2007

On the Small Screen...

The Tudors

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 Aragon, and Jeremy Northam as Thomas More. James Frain has hardly appeared as Thomas Cromwell but is already promising much.

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 Coronation Street is entirely appropriate here. This, after all, is the story of a man who executed two wives and numerous counsellors as well as disestablishing his country’s religion for the past thousand years. The Tudors is costume drama delivered with verve and brio. Ignore the details, settle back, and enjoy.

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.


Anonymous said...

Your comment on the inability of some people to accept fantasy as fantasy resonates. I have noted that tendency and wondered about it. It manifested itself most overtly in my book club's chilly reception for Night Lamp. It seems people can accept the most implausible things in a story set in the "real world", but miss or ignore profound truths if presented in a story set in a "fantasy world".

Tim Stretton said...

Ah, it was Night Lamp you took to your book club... no doubt they would have been equally dismissive of Lyonesse.

As fantasy writers we have to accept it as the way of the world. Most of the people who read The Dog of the North in its brief self-published incarnation said: "I don't normally like fantasy but I enjoyed this". These were readers who read it because I'd written it, when in everyday life they would shy away from a genre with much to say to them.