On the recently released DVD version of the first season of Showtime’s historical drama, The Tudors, there’s a special feature about the sumptuous costume design — easily the most distinctive aspect of this gorgeous-looking series. On camera, designer Joan Bergin says the period costumes were consciously “updated” to suit more modern, more Hollywood tastes (in fact, one outfit was drawn directly from an Erroll Flynn costume).
It’s good to keep this “updating” in mind when watching the series (the second season begins March 30). It helps explain why Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who plays Henry VIII, doesn’t look a whit like Henry. This isn’t (just) some know-it-all, historical quibble: Henry Tudor was a giant, a good head taller than everyone else at court; Meyers is often distinctly shorter. Well over six feet tall, Henry physically dominated his contemporaries; foreign ambassadors sent back reports in awe of him. This helps explain some of his bullying, petulant character — he was used to getting what he wanted (yet also, like many ruthless tyrants, deeply insecure about his power). It’s not simply because he was king. His older brother Arthur was destined to be king; his death thrust the role on Henry when he was only 17.
But it’s clear that The Tudors is keen on getting around the image of the unattractive side of beef with the piggy eyes that Henry became in later years, the image that still resides in our heads when we think of him. That’s why the muscular Meyers is here and why he (and almost everyone else) is clean-shaven (except briefly) even though the stylin’ Henry brought facial hair back into fashion. It’s that lean, updated look. Meyers is Henry as Buff Young Frat Boy, the Irresponsible Stud who Must Learn Painful Lessons about Life (but often refuses to).
Meyers’ appearance is a quibble, of course, except as it relates to his performance and characterization: His Henry yells a lot and stares with those icy eyes, as if to make up for the lack of an imposing presence. (The actor playing Buckingham, Steven Waddington, is surprising to see because he’s so clearly a better candidate to play Henry). On the other hand, Jeremy Northam is a superb choice for Sir Thomas More — not only does he look like More, he conveys the man’s intelligence and sensitivity, his melancholy humor and his priggishness bordering on fanaticism when it comes to his principles and the persecution of heretics. James Frain is also creepily effective as Thomas Cromwell, even though he’ll have to put on 100 pounds or more to portray the king’s ruthless minister in power.
But the series — at least in its first season — belongs to Sam Neill as Cardinal Wolsey. The Tudors offers what must surely be a unique, even remarkable experience: feeling sorry for Wolsey, one of the more cynical and dictatorial prelates in history. The first 10 episodes could even be sub-titled: “The Tragedy of Wolsey” — The Tudors takes wild liberties with the cardinal’s ultimate end just to underscore his pathos. Given how slowly the series moves and what’s undoubtedly coming up next, the second season will be a replay of that old favorite, “The Tragedy of Thomas More and the Tragedy of Anne Boleyn” (played with heaving bosom and cat’s eye flirtatiousness by Natalie Dormer. Indeed, the Internet Movie Database lists one of the top “plot keywords” for The Tudors: “breasts.”)
To maintain that level of heavy-breathing drama and sexual intrigue, The Tudors re-writes history to such a degree it drove me to dig out my old copy of Jasper Ridley’s Henry VIII (20 years old, but still a fine biography) just to make sure my memory was right and the series was wrong. The complicated bit of artistic license that sent me to my bookshelves: In real life, Henry’s sister Mary was used as a diplomatic pawn and married to the aged French king Louis XII, who died within 90 days of their wedding. On TV, she’s called Margaret (who was actually Henry’s older sister, married to the king of Scotland). The TV Margaret gets betrothed to some creaky Portuguese king, who promptly dies. And all this happens long after Henry has been dealing with Francois I — who was actually Louis XII’s young heir. Meaning, the series has compounded together different countries, different sisters and different decades.
I don’t believe people watch series like The Tudors and believe they’re watching history. Viewers are generally more sophisticated than that. But I do believe that a series promising the “real” and delivering this high-gloss melodrama instead has missed a good opportunity: History can be a hell of a lot richer and more intriguing than tarted-up bed scenes — recall The Six Wives of Henry VIII from 1970 or Elizabeth R with Glenda Jackson.
I also believe — recalling my hunting down the copy of Ridley — that people often get their curiosity piqued (or simply get confused) and wonder just how much of this stuff has any basis. To present one tiny example that the series presents utterly gratuitously (it has no plot purpose): Despite the legend, Henry VIII did not compose “Greensleeves” — as he does here. The song is in a style that didn’t exist until after his death. To present another, much more significant one: Anne Boleyn’s father did not plot with the Duke of Norfolk to get Wolsey out of power, slip Anne into Henry’s bed and get her on the throne. The grand conspiracy that powers much of the first season simply didn’t exist.
But that’s the way of an adult soap, which is really what The Tudors is. It’s also why we needn’t get too incensed over its loose hand with history (even as the ads keep touting it as the true story) — that’s the nature of this beast. It’s also why I avidly watched all 10 episodes and will probably watch Season 2: Adult soaps always have at least one romping, R-rated nude scene per episode or extended sequence of action/violence (preferably both) to justify being on cable and to keep many viewers interested. At the same time, there are lots of lush costumes with male and female characters who vary from the rogueish to the compulsively adulterous, the better for many other viewers to cluck at disapprovingly.
My wife Sara noted while watching The Tudors that another good sign a show is an adult soap: a general tone of humorless intensity. There really isn’t a comic character here; there’s barely even comic relief. Everything is torrid and troubled and dramatic.
Actually, there’s barely any intended comic relief: Producer-screenwriter Michael Hirst’s dialogue is often a howl, especially when he has Thomas More shoehorn in some reference to Macchiavelli or Luther or some other bit of cultural history — to certify that The Tudors is a classier item than just All My Children with fancy ruff collars.