fri 19/07/2024

The Tudors Season, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The Tudors Season, BBC Two

The Tudors Season, BBC Two

Mantel goes head to head with Starkey as Henry VIII executes everyone all over again for our pleasure

Off with her head: Daniel Flynn and Tara Breathnach in 'The Last Days of Anne Boleyn'

Is the BBC taking dictation from the Gradgrindian brain of Michael Gove? According to the education secretary’s latest wacky diktat, what the nation’s children want is facts facts facts. Plus, in the teaching of history, lots of stuff about England/Britain giving Johnny Foreigner a bloody conk. So let’s give it up one more time for the Tudors, who are essentially our very own Nazis.

This is less for the dodgy human rights record than their permanent status as a small-screen visitor attraction.

As the old rhyming mnemonic might put it, Harrys twain and Ned the Lad, Mary, Bessie: modern fad. After a book and two film versions of The Other Boleyn Girl, after Ray Winstone’s cockney king on ITV, two novels so far by Hilary Mantel (pictured below), a Boleyn play at Shakespeare’s Globe and not forgetting the impeccable document that is Showtime’s The Tudors, there can’t be many people on this island with anything left to learn about Henry VIII’s second marriage. Not to mention all the other ones: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived (and if your name was Thomas you were also for the chop). There’s not much else to add, is there?

Be that as it may, best get in the tankards of malmsey because here comes The Tudors Season. We’ve got some prof who isn’t Mantel on Thomas Cromwell, Lord Bragg on the insurrectionary Tyndale bible, plus a highbrow enticement called The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England. Oh, and there’s an intro to boring old Henry VII. Hats off to the BBC for, in the circs, resisting the temptation to shoot yet another drama about the Virgin Queen.

It all kicked off with The Last Days of Anne Boleyn, in which the principal interest is watching a viper’s nest of bestselling historians and novelists wield their poniards. “She is probably the sexiest girl at court,” suggested Philippa Gregory (subtext: there’s lashings of sex in my novels). She must know how Catherine of Aragon feels, having ceded her place as Tudor novelist to the nation to Mantel, who loftily offered that the second Mrs Henry VIII “was too detached and intelligent to stake everything on love” (subtext: for psychological nuance step this way). Meanwhile David Starkey (pictured below), frothing and fulminating by candlelight, was not letting any mere storyteller out-hyperventilate the master. “For a king this is wildly exciting!” he said of the young Boleyn’s bossiness. “Nobody has ever effectively given him orders!” (Subtext: please can someone do the same to me?)

Meanwhile on the undercard, various historians you’ve never heard of jostled for attention. One had a nose stud. Another placed himself in the torture chamber. “I would probably confess to having sex with the queen if it meant people would buy my much shunned PhD on the Tudors.” Or something like that. And meanwhile, as a pair of actors thanklessly played out the silent version of a dynastic soap, the old A level questions came round and round and round. Boleyn: victim or strumpet? Henry: pragmatist or dupe? Cromwell: oik or the architect of the modern British state?

The latter position was argued by Professor Diarmuid MacCulloch in Friday night’s Henry VIII’s Enforcer - Thomas Cromwell. He had an hour to convince you that there’s more to Cromwell studies than two prizewinning novels by Mantel. This he did by wandering around ruins and rifling through old documents. My favourite records Cromwell heading to Rome at a total cost of £47. That's £28K in today's money, or roughly the price of a round of Roman ice lollies. MacCulloch marched forthrightly in and out of shot a lot. Weird how they do that, but then the telly has turned serious academics into performing monkeys. Blame the public thirst for blood and intrigue, formerly supplied by actual executions, now by Tudor history on an endless loop.

Jasper Rees on Twitter

Starkey, frothing and fulminating by candlelight, was not going to let any mere storyteller out-hyperventilate the master


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Well said Mr Rees! As you note, most 'history' programmes on the BBC these days are more focussed (literally) on the presenter than the subject. I suspect the search for the antiquarian equivalent of David Attenborough is the cause of this plethora of poorly edited offerings. Why else would we have to spend minutes staring at a TV academic as they ponder a wonderful ancient artefact, then only to be allowed a split second to see it for ourselves? I love history, which is why I will be giving most of this stuff a wide bearth! (PS Anyway, I say ‘What about the Plantegenets?’)

and most reviews are about the critic, not the subject.....

A very amusing column, but not really a review.

"“I would probably confess to having sex with the queen if it meant people would buy my much shunned PhD on the Tudors.” Or something like that. Greg Walker, to whom this unfunny misquote may be attributed is Regius Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Edinburgh. I expect better from this website than juvenile sarcasm.

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