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Henry rules

King Henry VIII’s life has all the elements of great drama. No wonder it’s perfect fodder for novels, movies and TV series.

entertainment Updated: Jul 03, 2010 19:36 IST
Vir Sanghvi

HistoryAs you may have noticed, these are good times for King Henry VIII. He has had a big budget movie dedicated to his dalliances with the two Boleyn sisters – The Other Boleyn Girl with Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and Eric Bana as Henry. Before that, there was the BBC series based on the same best-selling novel by Philippa Gregory who has turned Henry into a bit of a cottage industry for her books.

Then, there is The Tudors, the hit cable TV series in which fat, old, gigantic Henry (he was nearly seven foot tall) is played by moody midget Jonathan Rhys-Meyers who not only looks nothing like Henry but who is mysteriously immune to the ravages of time, managing to look as svelte and athletic when he beds Catherine Howard (wife number five) as he did when he was married to Katherine of Aragon (wife number one).

At the point the show was when I last watched it – Catherine Howard had just got the chop and they were setting the stage for the entrance of the next (and last wife) – Henry should have been so fat that he had to be winched on to his horse. But Rhys-Meyers looked slender and supple enough to represent Wales in the World Gymnastics Championships.

Why are we so fascinated by Henry VIII that he should turn up in best-selling novels, in movies and on television? How come David Starkey can write book after book on the old boy, curate a Henry VIII exhibition and churn out two non-fiction TV series (you know the sort that Simon Schama also makes where he camps about the countryside telling us that we must believe this version because A Famous Historian is trying to earn an extra buck) on Henry and his reign?

It is not that the Tudors have long been absent from popular culture. In 1973 Glenda Jackson won an Oscar for playing Elizabeth I. There was the hugely successful BBC series Elizabeth R at around the same time and in recent years there have been the two Shekhar Kapur Elizabeth movies and at least two successful TV series (one starring Helen Mirren who clearly cannot resist playing any Queen called Elizabeth) on the so-called Virgin Queen.

But the Henry revival seems to have overtaken Elizabeth mania. Most of us have regarded Henry VIII as worthy of interest only in the context of Anne Boleyn and the break with Rome (which led to the setting up of the Church of England) that was the consequence of Henry’s determination to marry her.

All modern retellings of the Henry VIII story come up against the Robert Bolt problem. In the 1960s, Bolt (who was also David Lean’s favourite scriptwriter) wrote a play called A Man For All Seasons which cast Thomas More, Henry’s old friend and later Lord Chancellor, as its principal protagonist. A Man For All Seasons told the story of how More, a great and morally upright scholar, refused to support Henry’s break with Rome and his remarriage to Anne. The play was such a success that not only did it become a hit film (Paul Scofield won an Oscar for his Thomas More and Robert Shaw made an excellent Henry) that it is still prescribed today as a school text.

Given that Bolt’s version of the Henry story is so firmly imprinted in the public mind, all the current Henry revivalists have had to get around the More story. In The Other Boleyn Girl, More is airbrushed out of the narrative and in The Tudors, the scriptwriters bragged that they would ‘show the real Thomas More’. Because history was on Robert Bolt’s side, all they were able to do was portray More as a Catholic fundamentalist who enjoyed burning heretics. (Didn’t they all, in those days?)

But what the modern revival has got right is that it is Henry who is the more fascinating character, not More. When Henry became king of England, he was young, good-looking, tall, strapping and a jousting champion. All of England fell in love with him and he was an extraordinarily popular king.

Then, the decline began. He broke with his queen, Katherine of Aragon, to marry Anne Boleyn (known to his people as ‘The Great Whore’) and went on to behead Anne on trumped-up charges. (She was a witch; she had three nipples; she slept with her brother etc.).

Next came Jane Seymour who died during childbirth. His ministers then persuaded him to marry the German Anne of Cleves. Henry never got turned on by her (perhaps it was the silly hat she wore) and the marriage remained unconsummated till she was booted out. Her place was taken by the 19-year-old Catherine Howard. According to most historical accounts, Henry was either impotent or unable to satisfy her (but not in The Tudors TV show where Jonathan Rhys-Meyers gives her a good rogering so that TV viewers can get some nude scenes) so Howard took lovers. (Or, at the very least, one lover). Naturally, she was beheaded. Eventually, the old Henry ended up with Catherine Parr who was a practical-minded, middle-aged woman of the world who outlived him and married again.

With a story this juicy, who needs fiction? It has all the elements of great drama: sex, violence, adultery, allegations of witchcraft, international conflicts and lots of crowns and corsets. Small wonder then that movies, TV networks and novels have rushed to retell parts of the tale.

Which version of the Henry tale you like depends largely on your personal preference. Most women seem to like the Philippa Gregory books. Readers with an interest in serious history will enjoy Antonia Fraser’s biography of Henry. There are also several books and TV shows by David Starkey but I’m not a fan. (Though if you are in the mood for history with cream and two sugars, you may like the TV shows).

Of the movies, I did not like The Other Boleyn Girl even though Scarlet Johansson (playing the quiet sister, against type) is always gorgeous. The script, by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen, The Damned United etc.) is a mess and the film is all over the place.

The older movies can be fun. Get hold of A Man For All Seasons or even Anne of The Thousand Days in which Richard Burton hams it up delightfully as Henry.

Of the many TV versions, The Tudors, in which Henry’s court is portrayed as a medieval Dallas (or more accurately, Dynasty) has the most sex and violence. It fails because Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is the world’s most unconvincing Henry. Plus the historical accuracy is zilch. For instance, two of Henry’s sisters are combined into one composite character. I don’t think much of the TV version of The Other Boleyn Girl.

The best that can be said for it is that it is better than the big-budget Hollywood remake. And Natascha McElhone is a class act though viewers might be a little confused when she marries Gene Hunt from Life On Mars and Ashes to Ashes.

The older TV stuff is still the best. A British miniseries from about ten years ago (also written by Peter Morgan) with Ray Winstone as Henry has the advantage of greater historical accuracy and Winstone brings the right amount of physicality to his performance. Best of all though is the BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Made in 1970, on a tiny budget and packed with stage actors (not always a good idea for TV), it works because of an utterly brilliant performance by Keith Michel as Henry. Because Michel was a serious actor, he did not mind ageing as the series wore on and he lives and breathes the part so accurately that his performance must be the gold standard against which all Henrys will be judged.

I don’t know if more Henry-related shows are in the works. The Tudors still has a season or two to go. Philippa Gregory keeps churning out her books. And there’s always Simon Schama and his leather jacket waiting in the wings. Meanwhile, if you haven’t got into Henry-mania, it is time for a trip to your local DVD library.