By Paul Hoggart
Pete Morgan's Henry VIII was performed with conviction by a superb
cast led by Ray Winstone and Helena
HOW DID the great figures of history
speak? The question has long
intrigued scholars. I recall a succession
of English masters and
lecturers impersonating what academics thought Chaucer must have
sounded like. It was reminiscent of the Swedish Chef from the
Muppets, after downing a bottle of expectorant.
The English of Shakespeare's London, one expert claimed, probably
sounded like modern West Country, because over time, accents
radiate from centres of power. It was not explained why this
apply to Geordie or Lancashire too. Perhaps Hamlet sounded like
George Formby? (Imagine ukulele accompaniment) "Now 'ere's
poaser. A've got it in me mind. Whether to be or not to be? It
poozzles me, I find!" The question of how the medieval kings
England spoke is easier to answer: French. It may have been the
French of the Swedish Chef with a phlegm problem, but it certainly
wasn't English. One theory that has never been advanced, however,
my knowledge, is that Henry VIII spoke Cockney.
To viewers brought up on Keith Michell
and Robert Shaw, this was the
most startling aspect of Henry VIII (ITV One, Sunday). In most
respects Ray Winstone proved an excellent choice for the role.
has the stocky, muscular energy, the dynamic presence, the air
aggression and braggadocio, combined with passion and vulnerability.
From certain angles, he even looks vaguely like the portraits.
And to begin with he seemed to have
upgraded his estuary hard-man
twang into something more neutral and socially authoritative.
a strange accent, hovering somewhere between Windsor and Walford.
Let's call it "Toffney". But just as I was getting
Henry VIII as Toffney dynamo, a gear would slip. He'd swallow
final "l" or mangle a "th" and come out with
a line such
as: "England needs a may'w heir. Wivvout one, the frone
is at risk."
Or this to Anne Boleyn: "`I can
do anyfing I want . . . My wiw is the wiw
Since we have no real idea how Henry
VIII actually sounded,
Winstone's Toffney is no more absurd than making him sound like,
say, the Prince of Wales or Brian Sewell, but somehow it still
grated, the occasional slips into something broader jarring like
scratch on a vinyl record.
You can see the logic. We are on the
cusp of medieval and modern
history. Henry's father Henry VII (admirably croaked by Joss
Ackland) was the last of the robber-baron kings. Henry VIII was
overwhelmingly concerned with cementing his dynastic position.
they turned Winstone into a sort of English Godfather, determined
subdue the fractious rival families. We should be grateful that
didn't make him pad his cheeks with cotton-wool.
The fractious families were represented
by Charles Dance as the Duke
of Buckingham, the last Plantagenet claimant. Dance gets many
parts, probably due to those permanently half-closed eyes of
They exude patrician malevolence and are his fortune and his
When he's old and white-haired, he will be offered not Father
Christmas, but his evil twin.
The gangster concept provided the excuse
for some snazzy violence.
The ambush of the rebel nobles was worthy of an action movie,
when Buckingham was beheaded an arterial jet of tomato ketchup
splatted right across the eyes of two women onlookers. Do we
the influence of "Friday the 13th on Elm Street" here?
script varied from the discreetly competent to the tritely
anachronistic, but it never plumbed the depths of, say, Byron
Boudica. In the end Henry VIII proved fine Sunday night
entertainment for two reasons. First it is an absolutely fascinating
story, and you would have to work very hard indeed to ruin it.
one could have made it up, then or now.
Secondly, it was performed with conviction
by a superb cast.
Winstone's raw, nervy energy was compelling. David Suchet made
cold, reptilian manipulator of Cardinal Wolsey. Above all the
were wonderful. Assumpta Serena was dutiful, hurt, dignified
stubborn as Katherine of Aragon, while Helena Bonham Carter captured
the fearless intelligence of Anne Boleyn, brilliantly calculating,
but ultimately powerless. Despite Winstone's accent slips, it
a "foroughly enfwallin tay'w".