Henry VIII - Press Archive - TV Review

 
Source: The Times
13 Oct 2003
 
TV Review
By Paul Hoggart
Pete Morgan's Henry VIII was performed with conviction by a superb
cast led by Ray Winstone and Helena Bonham Carter
 
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 slowly
radiate from centres of power. It was not explained why this didn't
apply to Geordie or Lancashire too. Perhaps Hamlet sounded like
George Formby? (Imagine ukulele accompaniment) "Now 'ere's a little
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 of
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, to
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. He
has the stocky, muscular energy, the dynamic presence, the air of
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. It was
a strange accent, hovering somewhere between Windsor and Walford.
Let's call it "Toffney". But just as I was getting comfortable with
Henry VIII as Toffney dynamo, a gear would slip. He'd swallow a
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
of God."
 
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 a
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. So
they turned Winstone into a sort of English Godfather, determined to
subdue the fractious rival families. We should be grateful that they
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 such
parts, probably due to those permanently half-closed eyes of is.
They exude patrician malevolence and are his fortune and his yoke.
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, and
when Buckingham was beheaded an arterial jet of tomato ketchup
splatted right across the eyes of two women onlookers. Do we detect
the influence of "Friday the 13th on Elm Street" here? Pete Morgan's
script varied from the discreetly competent to the tritely
anachronistic, but it never plumbed the depths of, say, Byron and
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. No
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 a
cold, reptilian manipulator of Cardinal Wolsey. Above all the women
were wonderful. Assumpta Serena was dutiful, hurt, dignified and
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 was
a "foroughly enfwallin tay'w".
 
 

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