In 2007 Showtime began the produce and air the historical drama The Tudors. The show takes place over 4 seasons, between the 1520s and the 1540s and focuses on the life of King Henry VIII. It begins with Henry’s youth and intrigue with Anne Boleyn and ends with the production of the famous Holbein painting just prior to Henry’s death in 1547. With the title saying “Tudors” plural, I half-expected the show to continue in future seasons with the lives of Henry’s children, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, but it did not.
This drama comes from Michael Hirst, who cut his teeth in historical costumed dramas with the feature film Elizabeth I in 1998. I remember going to that film in high school (receiving extra credit in my English class for seeing it), and and I loved it. Michael Hirst guarantees a visually-stimulating show, with unbelievably beautiful costumes, sets and props. His productions often blend the line of fact in fiction because while he attempts to keep to the history he deliberately breaks from it for story or to make production easier. Hirst got rid of Henry’s sister Mary, blending a general idea of her person into Henry’s sister Margaret (this causes several problems later in the series), because he didn’t want two “Princess Mary Tudor”s on the call sheet- the king’s sister and daughter shared the same rank and title at one point in their lives. After the cancellation of The Tudors, Hirst went on to create Camelot, The Borgias, and Vikings.
The show cast Irish star Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry, Maria Doyle Kennedy as Katherine of Aragon, Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn, and Henry Cavill of Superman fame as Charles Brandon. Cavill apparently auditioned for Henry but in the end was cast as the rakish Brandon, as whom he gives an a commanding performance. Especially towards the end of the show, as Brandon ages Cavill becomes the sexiest men on the show, at least in my opinion.
Casting Meyers as Henry caused several problems in the show. Firstly, he doesn’t have the full presence of the actual king. Henry VIII was more of his grandfather, Edward IV, than his father, Henry VII, but Meyers looks more like VII than VIII. Meyers just isn’t a large enough man. His physical appearance became more of a problem as the show went on because Meyers would not gain weight and refused to wear a fat suit. I can’t imagine that he took the roll without thinking that one day the character was going to have to be fat. It is not as if he could claim that he had no idea that Henry VIII was fat towards the end of his life, when he couldn’t ride and play sports anymore. I’ve always wondered if Cavill would have put the suit on?
Natalie Dormer was one of the break-away stars of this show. She went on to feature films and Game of Thrones, but continues to be the mental image for many when they think of Anne Boleyn. A stunningly beautiful woman, Dormer dyed her hair a dark brown to play Anne. According to Susan Bordo’s The Creation of Anne Boleyn, Anne’s “dark features” did not mean that her hair was almost black in color. On the contrary, her hair being called dark just means that she was not a blonde, which was the popular “romantic” hair color. Bordo believes that Anne’s hair was in fact light brown, as it is shown in the National Portrait Gallery portrait.
Some of the worst deviations from the history happen due to what I call a “Hirst wink-wink.” This happens in all of his productions. The show will diverge and a character will make an announcement that “nobody must know of this having happened,” as though the history is wrong and Hirst alone stumbled into the truth. “This is what really happened, wink-wink, but the history was deliberately changed, wink-wink, which is why you’ve never heard of it before, wink-wink!” Whenever you hear a character comment that nobody must ever know that this happened you are viewing an alteration to the know history.
But what is it that can make a viewer, even one like me who knows better, watch this show again and again? Because we want to think that we are flies on the wall to what happened. It may be flawed, but it is the best chance we have of watching Henry VIII live and love, at least until a time machine is invented. The story, the train-wreck knowledge that the wives of this man are going to end badly, that he will get fat and sick and mean, keeps us watching.
The show is available on Netflix Streaming, and the DVDs are available for purchase. At times Showtime will include it in their On Demand offerings for subscribers.
One note about watching- this show is one that you want to watch in HD. The costumes are amazing pieces of work, and in HD you can see every little thread and texture. The jewels and sets have amazing details, as do the hairpieces, and if you can you’ll want to be able to see every one of them.
Another note is that every time I watch it, our puppy Henry Rex goes nuts when he hears his name coming from our speakers! It’s very, very cute!
EDIT: Susan Bordo has pointed out to me that she believes Anne Boleyn had dark auburn hair. I apologize for the error.