Henry VIII - Press Archive - A Gangster King Thing
A gangster king thing
Ray Winstone is best known for portraying East End hard nuts, so he
seems an unlikely choice for the role of Henry VIII. But on the set of I
TV's drama, James Rampton saw the actor in a whole new light
08 October 2003
The Duke of Buckingham has been foiled in his attempt to lead a
Plantagenet rebellion against the reigning Tudor monarch, Henry VIII.
As the King interrogates the captured Duke, he taunts him by holding
out his hand and showing him his regal ring. "Take it," Henry mocks,
before saying with a threatening snarl, "but you'll have to kill me first."
You half expect the King to add: "Come and have a go, if you think
you're hard enough!"
For in Henry VIII, a gripping new ITV 1 drama, the title role is played by
Ray Winstone, one of our seminal screen hard nuts. He is an actor who,
since he made his debut as "the Daddy" in Scum some 25 years ago,
has fashioned a career from dishing out all manner of mayhem. Remember
the havoc he wreaked in, say, Nil By Mouth or Sexy Beast or The War
Zone or Face? Exactly. He's one scary guy.
The quintessential East End actor is clearly absolutely delighted that he
is now portraying Henry VIII. In a break between shooting scenes at
Pinewood, where the film-makers have recreated the Great Hall, the
Queen's bedchambers and castle corridors on sets recently vacated by
The Hours, Winstone beams, "It's really flattering for me to be asked to
play a king. I mean, I'm a kid out of Plaistow, and I'm playing one of
the most famous kings of England. It's fantastic!"
Certainly, with Winstone in the role, there is no danger of this Henry
being some sort of effete, namby-pamby monarch who minces around
smelling roses, reciting poetry and strumming a mandolin. As the writer
Peter Morgan puts it, "If Ray Winstone is in it, you know this drama is
not going to be too stuffy and up its own arse." And according to the
lead actor, "When my Henry comes into the room and says, 'I am the
King of England,' I want to make sure that people hear the sound of
a warrior ready for war - not some poncey bloke with a bunch of jewels
on his head."
Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the seductive Anne Boleyn in this
Granada production, reckons that Winstone is "a dynamic choice. He
makes it immediately exciting. He puts a different slant on it because
he is so unpredictable, and that brings a raw brutality to it." Well
known as Merchant Ivory's muse in their exquisite costume dramas,
Bonham Carter adds with a laugh that "me being 'Mrs Period Cliché'
is balanced in this project by the fact that Ray is definitely not one."
Winstone undoubtedly invests the role with a simmering air of menace.
One scene that looks set to grab headlines is a case in point. In the
middle of a blazing row about her failure to produce a son, the enraged
Henry grabs Anne and brutally rapes her. You may well find yourself
watching that particular sequence from behind the sofa. As Bonham
Carter says, "That was a pretty unpleasant scene, as it brought home
just what a monster Henry could be."
Winstone chips in by acknowledging the King's fatal flaw. "Powerful men
usually have a weakness, and that always seems to be sex." It is a
portrayal that diverges from the "authorised version" of Henry' s life, and
Morgan is bracing himself for attacks from purists. The writer, also
responsible for The Deal, Channel 4's newsworthy drama about "the
Granita pact" between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, admits that
"plenty of historians will find what we have done scandalous. It was
the same with The Deal - you wouldn't expect Cherie Blair to agree
with everything I wrote.
"But what I'm aiming for is to stimulate greater interest in history,
rather than to score points with a particular version of events. Also,
when historians are up in arms, they tend to be up in arms in a tiny,
Andy Harries, the controller of drama at Granada, is also far more
concerned with Henry VIII as drama than as historical record, and for
him it is a " walk-in story". "I thought, 'Henry VIII and his six wives -
can it get much better for ITV? Never mind Bad Girls - I've got a mad,
testosterone-fuelled king who rampages about the place beheading his
"Once I had Ray Winstone in mind for the lead, everything fell into place.
Casting him made the whole project feel very contemporary. When I said,
'Ray Winstone is Henry VIII,' the ITV executives immediately understood
what I was pitching. Ray has this tremendous physical intensity. Henry
was a very angry and irrational man, prone to terrible mood swings and
"Irrational" scarcely does Henry VIII justice. When a friend beat him at
bowls once, the King had him beheaded. "He was obviously a few marbles
short of the complete box," Harries smiles. "Ray depicts that brilliantly."
Just in case we haven't got the message, Harries goes on to reveal that the
drama "is partly inspired by The Sopranos. The idea of the 'gangster king' v
ery much informs the piece. Henry had to do an awful lot of wheeler-dealing
to hold on to his throne. How did he maintain power? By bunging nobles.
Cardinal Wolsey [who is played in the drama by David Suchet] was
famously wealthy because he diverted a large amount of Treasury funds
into his own pockets. There was a lot of gangsterism in those days."
Plus ça change.
Francis Hopkinson, the producer of Henry VIII, also highlights the drama's
contemporary resonance. "All sorts of machinations went on in Henry's court,
but the Hutton inquiry shows that things aren't hugely different nowadays.
At one point in the drama, Cranmer and Cromwell bring Henry a questionable
document that gives him power over Rome. We called that the 'dodgy dossier'
Emphasising the modern-day feel, the producers were anxious to steer clear of
period stereotypes. "So," explains Harries, "we shot it in a modern way,
without any cod Tudor language. There are no 'thee's or 'thou's or 'my
liege's. And there is certainly no ludicrous dancing in pantaloons!"
Hopkinson stresses that "at the end of most period dramas, you want
to hug the costume and set designer. But we didn't want to show off the
production values; rather, we've concentrated on telling a cracking story.
We didn't want to prettify the era, which was raw and tough. This is
certainly not chocolate-box drama."
To underline the gritty authenticity of the production, behind the scenes at
Pinewood I'm told wardrobe assistants are busily drenching Henry's
underpants in cold tea to give them that credible "lived-in" look for a
forthcoming love scene with Anne. Morgan takes up the theme. "Before I
wrote Henry VIII, there were just two rules: no chicken drumsticks being
hurled over the shoulder, and no lute music." Instead, the writer has focused
on the fact that Henry is - to use that ghastly term beloved of psychotherapists -
"conflicted". "He was a neglected second son, and much of his loudness and
attention-seeking was down to trying to get his father's approval. That
meant that he was both a brute and a victim at the same time."
Winstone explains why he believes the King was such a contradictory character.
"My idea of Henry is quite mixed. I think he was a very troubled man -
paranoid and psychotic at times, while charming and funny at others.
This is a man who allowed two of his wives - women he loved passionately -
to be murdered. At the same time, he wrote beautiful love letters,
understood science and, to a certain extent, was a great ambassador.
He was an intelligent, gentle, romantic man who lost his way when it
came to love. He sold his soul for his country and for the duty he inherited,
and from then on it became easier and easier for him to discard the women
His appetite for period drama whetted, Morgan is now moving on to tackle
another celebrated era from British history with an ITV 1 series about
Colditz. So, in striving for an authentic feel, has the writer again laid
down golden rules about the clichés that must be avoided at all costs?
"There are two rules that are firmly in place for my Colditz drama," Morgan
laughs. "I have guaranteed that there will be no cricket and absolutely no
waxing of moustaches."
'Henry VIII' starts on ITV 1 at 9pm on Sunday
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