Henry VIII - Press Archive - I'm Henry the eighth, I am

Source: The Guardian
06 Oct 2003
I'm Henry the eighth, I am
Mark Lawson
Every monarch, just like every war, tends to be followed by another one.

So it's perhaps appropriate that famous TV series about royalty and about
conflict have both spawned descendants decades later. ITV1's Henry VIII
is the heir to the 1970s BBC legend Six Wives of Henry VIII, while the same
channel's P.O.W. - set in the Stalag 39 camp - follows down the tunnel a
great BBC escape drama of the same period: Colditz.
With Henry VIII, in particular, you see the gains and losses for the
viewer across three decades. When it comes to images, we're spectacular
beneficiaries of the time-lag. The use of studio sets and videotape means
that even classy drama of the past - which Six Wives was - has a cheap
feel now, even though its six-figure budget seemed indecent at the time.
In contrast, the £6m spent on ITV1's version has allowed director Pete
Travis to operate as a kind of Rolf Harris, creating instant versions of
great paintings: in this case, Holbein and contemporaries. It would be
hard to find anyone except a cricket umpire who had paid quite so much
attention to the light. If the characters aren't illuminated by flaming
torches or flickering candles, it's slanting shafts of sunlight. And,
inevitably, you see much more detail than in 1971 of the methods - such as
sex and death - which the monarch used to secure the succession.
But, if the camerawork takes advantage of the passage of time, the speech
is the loser. It's well-known that television has lately developed a
terror of posh characters - largely because the top soaps are dialect-led
- but you'd think an exception might be made for a king. Ray Winstone
successfully suggests Henry's intimidating size but has played so many
working-class characters and gangsters that he trails those associations
behind him like a cloak.
It's true that we don't know how Henry would have sounded - and it
certainly wouldn't have been like Prince Charles - but accent is still
such an indicator of class in Britain that any departure from acting
tradition needs to be consistent across the cast. Here, while Helena
Bonham-Carter as Anne Boleyn is giving it the full Merchant-Ivory,
Winstone just sounds merchant trader, which occasionally gives the odd
impression that Henry's tragedy was to fancy his social superiors. You get
a man who likes posh birds, when surely he was a posh rooster too.
The script further complicates the sense of hierarchies in this court. A
modern dramatist working in this period has two dialogue options:
mock-Tudor (ie cod-Shakespeare) or contemporary. In Henry VIII, Peter
Morgan has compromised somewhere between stage and street. For example,
we guess that Anne has tried to give Henry a blow-job when he roars: "Do you
think I like the filthy elaborations that you learned in France? They
disgust me."
True to modern sexual politics, Morgan is hard on Henry: women beware a
guy with commitment issues, a beard and ready access to a guillotine - but
soft on Katherine of Aragon and Anne, who are both given Joan of Arc-like
declarations of integrity before they are dragged to their fates. Morgan
is best on the scenes of ecclesiastical intrigue - the cardinals muttering
in the shadows - which may be no surprise as he scripted the recent
Blair-Brown drama, The Deal. If you've done Mandelson and Brown, Cranmer
and Cromwell must come fairly easily.
Finally, both Morgan and Winstone seem uncertain how to view Henry. He's
initially motivated by the need for an heir: just a twitch of the DNA when
he slept with Katherine and he might have died a one-time husband in a
Catholic country. But it's gradually intimated that he's more interested
in getting his end away than in starting a church. Anglicanism is just a
by-product of one man's wandering eye.
The structure - two two-hour sittings - sometimes seems lumpy. In 1971,
BBC1 gave an edition to each missus, which felt neat. ITV1 allows Anne
almost a whole movie and then rattles through the final four in another
cinema-length episode.
The original writer on this project was Alan Bleasdale, who apparently
left after the rejection of the idea to begin the series with Henry
arriving in Hell. Strangely, there's still a hint of that brave concept in
the flames which blaze under the opening credits. I'd love to have seen
what Bleasdale made of the characters: "Gissa son. Go on, gissa one."


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