When Robert Greenblatt, then president of Showtime and producer of such innovative series as Dexter, The L Word, and Weeds, got the idea to do a series on the Tudors, his goal was to make a “younger and sexier version” of the story of Henry VIII and his wives. Michael Hirst, who was commissioned to do the pilot, was expressly asked to imagine it as a “kind of American soap opera” about politics, power, and sexuality, like The West Wing and The Sopranos. “I hadn’t worked in TV before,” Hirst told me in a 2011 phone interview. “And although I had seen The Sopranos, I didn’t really know what he was talking about. Was he asking me to dumb down the story?” Hirst was skeptical. But after reviewing episodes of The West Wing, he became convinced that it was possible to “be entertaining and commercial but about serious things.”
From the casting of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, which paired brooding Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and newcomer Natalie Dormer largely on the basis of “chemistry,” “entertaining and commercial” quickly became translated to “sexy.” For Hirst, “It wasn’t entirely cynical. I did want to show, unlike high school history, that there was a lot of sex at the time.” But he also admitted “it’s quite true that it was also a way of gaining an audience for something that wouldn’t otherwise have been watched. Once I had my audience, I could develop more complicated issues.” Some members of the cast, however, did not apparently care much about those “complicated issues.” Sam Neill, who played Cardinal Wolsey, described the series as “above all, about sex. Sex drives everything, including Wolsey, who had a mistress. The vow of celibacy didn’t mean a lot to the good cardinal. Yes, sex drives everything. That’s what makes [the series] such fun.” Amazingly enough, this view of the period did not hamper Neill from doing a pretty fair job as Wolsey.
Today, Hirst admits that he may have gone too far. “We probably had a little too much sex in the beginning,” he conceded. I certainly thought so, not for reasons of prudishness but because the sexual overkill was ludicrous, historically inaccurate, and turned all the women, save hair-shirted Katherine, into mindless tarts. Henry merely had to wink at one of his boys and nod in the direction of a pretty wench in order to have her delivered to his rooms that night. In the very first episode, he spends all of four minutes discussing the pros and cons of war with France before he declares, “it’s time to play” and goes off to have cinematic sex with Elizabeth Blount. Blount was his mistress, so there’s some justification for introducing her early on. But later on in the same episode — it seems to be the next day — he invites another maid — a “Lady Jane,” unknown to the historical record — to his bedchamber. And on it goes, until Henry is struck with the dart of love for Anne.
The show premiered in the United States in April 2007. The first reviews were neither outraged nor particularly enthusiastic. Alessandra Stanley, in the New York Times, called it “enjoyable but not exhilarating, engaging but not hypnotic.” Ted Cox, in the Daily Herald, asked: “What do bare breasts and rampant sex scenes add to the life of Henry VIII?” and concluded that while “history certainly goes down easier when it’s being mixed with bodice-ripping romps in bed,” the show “never really ignites dramatically.” But when the show premiered on BBC six months later the steam hit the fan, as the British press reacted to the marathon sexuality and what in virtually every review was described as the gross, pandering “Americanization” of English history. A sampling from the press: “Perfectly preposterous. There are so many pouting babes and dashing blades in Henry’s court, The Tudors looks like a CSI: Miami pool party with ruffles”; “a Wikipedia entry with boobs”; “sexed up” and “dumbed down” for American audiences; “a porno-style historical semi-drama quite obviously not aimed at the serious television watcher”; “Entourage goes historical”; and so on.
When historians got in on the action, criticisms of the historical inaccuracies were added to the complaints about the sex. Alison Weir compared the series to a Hollywood “fairytale.” David Starkey called the series “gratuitously awful” and “a Midwest view of the Tudors . . . made with the original intention of dumbing it down so that even an audience in Omaha could understand it.” Everyone had his or her own pet peeves. Retha Warnicke “shuddered” at the conflation of Henry’s sisters, Mary and Margaret, into one person (which was done, according to Hirst, so that staff on location would not be confused when “Mary” was called to the set.) Others found compact, brown-haired Jonathan Rhys Meyers (who refused to get fat or wear a body suit as the series went on) to be a preposterously J. Crew Henry. My own imaginary rotten tomato hit the television set when during the third episode, King Francis’s sister Marguerite de Navarre, the intellectual light of the French court and a deep believer in platonic love between men and women, appears as a visitor to the English court, bosom spilling out of her dress, casting hot glances across the dining hall at Henry as both of them bite into their roasted thighs and wings, Tom Jones fashion. The liaison gets arranged effortlessly, and later that night, we see two guards stoically keeping watch while Henry and Marguerite grunt and moan behind his bedroom door. Most viewers would not have realized that a distinguished historical figure was being turned into a trollop for the sake of ratings, but for those of us who know something about the period, it seemed not merely gratuitous (as “Lady Jane” had been) but nasty. Having talked to Michael Hirst at length, I know he is neither nasty nor disrespectful of women. But doing The Tudors, as he admits, was a learning curve for him when it came to the intellectual and religious role of the female players in the larger historical drama.
Unfortunately the cultural “learning curve” has not followed Hirst’s better angels. On the assumption that American viewers cannot tolerate 60 minutes without a glimpse of naked breasts or glamorously writhing bodies, the Starz/BBC co-production of The White Queen, a ten part amalgamation of three Philippa Gregory novels about the women of the Wars of the Roses, cut a special version for us dumb, horny Americans with, as one journalist put it, “more British boobs, more British bums, and more British bonking” than BBC viewers got to see. The Starz version also presumed (perhaps correctly) that we would be confused by the fact that characters would sometimes be called by their given names, sometimes by their titles. Max Irons, who plays Edward, found it laughable: “For the BBC, I’d say to my brother, ‘Come here, George.’ But for Starz it would be ‘Come here George, Duke of Clarence.’ So they’d know what I was on about.’ Irons mock groans that the premium on “more arse” (as he put it) required constant visits to the gym, to keep his booty camera-worthy.
Not to be defensive about American viewers, but I wonder if any of the Starz executives bothered to look up U.S. ratings for Downton Abbey before deciding how much nudity was required to keep us enthralled? But then, British viewers weren’t exactly deprived of silly sex in their more tasteful BBC version. Although there is perhaps some historical justification for the many scenes of hot coupling between Edward and Elizabeth (they did produce quite a few children), both U.S. and British audiences also learned that the real reason Richard III lost the battle of Bosworth was that his manly fluids had been drained in a pre-battle sexual romp with his niece Elizabeth, leaving him not only without a horse in the final scene but without the energy required to defeat Henry Tudor. I am not one to gasp in horror at every bending of historical fact—virtually every production takes some liberties, and the best are artistically justified by character, wish-fulfillment or truth deeper than mere fact (as, for example, in Anne Boleyn’s famous tower speech in Anne of the Thousand Days—an invention that many a viewer has felt should have happened). But some are simply gratuitous pandering to assumptions about audience tastes, and the pre-Bosworth sex was surely among them.
Viewers of The White Queen also learned that grasping female ambition is the invisible motor of history. This has, for a long time, been Philippa Gregory’s idea of “restoring” forgotten women to the historical record. The formula seems to run like this: in a phallocentric society, royal and well-placed women can (mostly) only operate behind the scenes, through their children, and by clever manipulation of their men and the opportunities afforded them. There’s truth there–and a nuanced writer like Hilary Mantel might be able to create a Margaret of Anjou or a Margaret Beaufort who, like her Thomas Cromwell, might be shown to exploit their opportunities without losing their humanity or becoming stereotypes. But Gregory’s women are entertaining precisely by virtue of satisfying our lazy pleasure in the recycling of age-old archetypes.
The White Queen had its moments. In one arresting scene, not in the novels but added in the teleplay by Emma Frost, Warwick unsettles Elizabeth by ordering a servant carrying a portrait of Margaret of Anjou to “burn her!” Elizabeth, momentarily thinking he is referring to her, is startled. But Warwick points to the portrait and sneers: “I have no truck with a queen who seeks to rule her husband. There’s no need for scheming women here.” Since Warwick is one of the arch-villains of the series, one is clearly meant to take him as a misogynist thug. But in fact Anjou, along with Margaret Beaufort and Anne Neville turn out, in The White Queen, to be dreadful schemers, on whom the series lavishes little sympathy (well, perhaps a bit for hapless Anne). Beaufort, in particular, is made out to be a crazed fanatic whose neurotic ruthlessness lends credence to Kyra Kramer’s theory that Henry VIII’s problems were indeed genetic.
In retrospective and by comparison, The Tudors, despite the sexual overkill, a miscast (although wildly popular) Henry VIII (I would have preferred Russell Crowe, an actor with more substance and nuance, and who at least would have gotten fat with some pleasure), and inaccuracies and alterations, was at least driven by a desire to recreate the perilous, fractured world of Henry VIII’s reign–and succeeded in many ways. I suspect that if we scrutinized it fact-for-fact alongside any of the other Henry VIII dramas (including the 1970 BBC series) it would fare extremely well. And while it’s The White Queen that has the pseudo-feminist agenda, ironically (in part because Hirst was open to the criticism and suggestions of Natalie Dormer and in part because he has the temperament and passions of a scholar rather than a romance novelist,) The Tudors ultimately did more justice to its female characters than The White Queen, which was determined to given them their due.
Ah, but now that I have seen three episodes of Reign, a CW mutilation of the story of Mary Queen of Scots that I sincerely hope never makes it across the ocean lest the American reputation for perpetual adolescence become irrevocably solidified, I look back on The White Queen with longing for what was at least the scaffolding of historical events that sustained the narrative of the Starz/BBC series. The actress who plays Mary’s lady-in-waiting “Lola” (the other three are Kenna, Greer, and Aylee—names that I expect will soon turn up on birth announcements) describes the series as “creating a new world: fantasy history.” She’s got it exactly right. Except for the “history” part. (For details, I highly recommend Linda Root’s ‘My Rant on Reign: A Critique‘; she’s done a masterful, entertaining job deconstructing the Wikipedia summary—and in this case, there’s not much more to the actual series than what you find on the Wiki.) Reign invites descriptions of cross-breeding: “Gossip Girl” meets “Game of Thrones” was suggested by one enthusiast of the show—which is pretty close, although I’d toss in some Pride and Prejudice, too, as besides the bevy of pretty people in utterly anachronistic dress (soon to be marketed in Target, I’m sure, as The Reign Collection), the whiffs of the supernatural, the Nostradamus who looks like Rasputin, the invented warm-hearted Bastard son “Bash” (another name that’s bound to become distressingly popular), the numerous scenes of giggling girls sharing secrets, the utterly non-credible talking-back to the King that Mary (go girl!) engages in, there’s a lot of sober discussion between the Lola, Kenna, Greer, and Aylee about the common girl’s prospects for marriage, who is suitable for whom, the families that must be supported, and so on, that seem straight out of Austen.
And there you have the post-modern secret of Reign: grab anything that has worked or could work, make it as visually attractive as possible, cut and paste and find some narrative glue to hold the hodge-podge together so that you can spread it out over a number of episodes. That’s how history functions in the series—it’s actually no more necessary, no more substantial than the background for a store window display.