Thursday, December 05, 2013

The Tudors

            When I first heard that they were making a TV show about Henry VIII, I thought: What a waste! With all the interesting periods of English history, why do they have to go and glorify a tyrant?

            And yet, despite the fact that the reign of the Tudors is not one of my pet historical interests, for those of us addicted to history, all history is ultimately of some interest. And so, curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to check out the series.
            My brother-in-law and I watched several episodes of The Tudors back in the spring of 2011, but we were limited to what was in stock at our local video rental store, which caused us to jump around in the series, seeing the whole thing out of order and incompletely.

            Now that I’m in Cambodia, where whole DVD box sets of Western TV shows can be got for just a few dollars, I decided to treat myself to the whole of The Tudors, from beginning to end.

            Generally speaking, I’m very impressed with how historically accurate the show is.  (Granted, I’ve just admitted I’m no expert on Tudor England, but I have at least a broad understanding of English history from This Sceptred Isle, Monarchy by David Starkey, and The History of Britain by Simon Schama.  Also, since this is the 21st century, I did the standard Internet geek thing and went to Wikipedia after each episode to research what I had just seen.)
            From what I could tell, The Tudors follows history pretty closely.  Not perfectly, admittedly.  Lots of things get slightly changed around or altered for dramatic purposes and yet, as far as I can tell, it’s more accurate than not. 
            I won’t get into details about what’s historically accurate in the series and what’s not.  That would be redundant since it’s already on the Internet anyways, and anyone interested can easily do their own research.  (See, for example, the Wikipedia section on The Tudors historical accuracy.)  I’ll just say that it passes my test. 

            I’ve known a lot of people who sniff their noses at the idea of taking The Tudors seriously as historical drama, but really, if you do the research, it’s pretty accurate.  (The principle complaint most people seem to have is that most of the actors are too sexy, but actually I’m inclined to let this go.  Whenever you cast actors to play historical people, you have to give a certain amount of leeway for visual representations.  So, yes, even though the real King Henry VIII was a fat disgusting old man, and didn’t look at all like the dashing young actor who portrayed him on-screen, I wasn’t terribly bothered.)

            In terms of watchability—the pacing slows down a bit in the final 4th season, which becomes a little bit tiresome to those of us with short attention spans.  But the first 2 seasons were dynamite.
            I’m reminded of my friend who said, “History is always more interesting than fiction.  The stuff that happens in history—you couldn’t make that stuff up if you tried.”
            Indeed, imagine if a fictional writer had created a character like Henry VIII—nobody would believe such a character could be realistic.  Surely a normal person would just fire their old advisors, instead of beheading them.  Or divorce their wives, without having to chop off their heads.
            It’s no wonder Hollywood has always loved King Henry VIII. In other countries, religious reformations happen with dry theological discussions and theses being nailed on doors.  In England the reformation was destined to be tied up with the soap opera like story of Henry VIII and his six wives.  So you get both the soap opera story, and the great religious-political upheaval story.
            A lesser series might have only played up the soap opera aspect to the story, but I thought The Tudors did a very good job of also capturing the religious turmoil of the age.
            Once King Henry had let the genie of the Protestant Reformation out of the bottle, the rest of his reign was perpetually caught between radical religious reformers who kept wanting to push the reformation further, and religious conservatives who wanted to roll the reformation back.  The series did a very good job of showing this.

            Interestingly, the series is named The Tudors, not King Henry VIII, giving the impression that it aimed to cover all the Tudor dynasty.
            There are some hints in the 4th season that the filmmakers may have been hoping to continue into the reign of King Edward VI and Queen Mary.  A number of plot points are set up that would seem to indicate the show had ambitions to chronicle the reigns of Edward and Mary.  Much is discussed about the concern of Edward’s protestant tutelage.  Also Hugh Latimer, who, along with Cranmer, would be one of Queen Mary’s most famous Protestant martyrs, is introduced in the 4th season.  (Cranmer, for some reason, disappears after season 2 even though in real life he remained a prominent figure until Queen Mary burned him.)
            It’s almost a pity the show didn’t continue into the reigns of Henry’s children, because this was when the religious wars really started to get interesting—the aggressive Protestantism of the reign of King Edward VI and then the horrible Catholic counter-reaction of Queen Mary.  And then that would set the scene for the religious conflicts which would dominate the British Isles for next 200 years until the end of the Jacobite uprisings.  (Indeed, in parts of the British Isles the vicious factional bloodletting between Protestants and Catholics continues to this day!)

A while back I created a list of all the historical episodes I would like to see turned into TV shows.  I was somewhat taking The Tudors as my inspiration when I came up with this wish list.   If we can get 4 seasons of TV drama out of Henry VIII, then why not some of these other events?

            Just for the record, David Starkey would not be happy about me using his book to defend the historical accuracy of The Tudors, since he said of The Tudors :

Dr Starkey said it was a disgrace that the BBC had "squandered" public money on a historical drama which he claimed had been deliberately "dumbed down" to appeal to an American audience."It is gratuitously awful," he told The Daily Telegraph. "There are errors in Shakespeare when he handles history but they are there for a purpose. The mistakes in The Tudors are completely gratuitous.""I think it is shameful for a national channel which has some claim to being a public service broadcaster to broadcast this kind of stuff."He added: "The series was made with the original intention of dumbing it down so that even an audience in Omaha [in Nebraska] could understand it.

            David Starkey has a reputation in Britain for saying outlandish things to get publicity, so perhaps his outrage can be taken with a grain of salt.
            Plus, I’ve got to say, from the brief sketch of the reign of King Henry VIII that David Starkey gave in Monarchy, everything lines up pretty neatly with the TV show. (Granted I haven’t read David Starkey’s more indepth books on the Tudor Monarchs.)   Also Thomas More, Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, and Thomas Cranmer all appear pretty much as David Starkey describes them. 
(....Hmmm, looking back at that list, I notice Thomas appears to have been a very popular name back in Tudor England. And I haven't even mentioned all the other Thomases in The Tudors: Thomas Boleyn, Thomas Wriothesley, Thomas Howard, Thomas Seymour, Thomas Culpeper, Thomas Darcy...)

            Granted The Tudors is not perfect.  But then, what is?  Name me a television drama that doesn’t take any liberties with history.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - Keeping the Poor Frightened
And from the Washington Post: Obama’s photo policy smacks of propaganda

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