Longsword by David Pilling

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Fact vs Fiction

This is a bit late, since The Tudors and The White Queen are no longer on our screens, but today I wanted to talk a bit about these shows (and others like them) and the way they affect our general understanding of the past. Since The White Queen is the more recent, I've chosen to concentrate on that.


I was no great fan of the series, or Philippa Gregory's version of events surrounding the disappearance of Edward V and his brother in 1483. Call me a thumpingly literal-minded traditionalist, but so far as I'm concerned those boys were murdered shortly before the accession of Richard III, and on Richard's orders. There is no evidence for their assassination, of course, and none is likely to come to light, but they vanished from public view while under the care and 'protection' of their uncle. It was Richard who had the means, the motive and the opportunity - something I might devote a future blog post to.

Gregory takes a different view, and has the elder of the boys, Edward, smothered by agents of the Duke of Buckingham, while his brother Richard is smuggled abroad and later regenerates, Doctor Who-style, as Perkin Warbeck, bane of Henry VII. This is by no means the wildest of the many and various alternative theories about the fate of the princes - they range from death by cancer to the INSANE Margaret Beaufort keeping the boys as pets in her own private dungeon - but was depicted on the programme as solemn, unimpeachable fact.*

The entire sequence was irritating, as well as muddled and badly-filmed, but Gregory is a shrewd operator, and well aware that you can't show Richard III doing bad things in the current climate. We're going to get Saint Dickon from now on, come what may.

Far worse was TWQ's other digressions from the official record. Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Elizabeth Woodville's mother, who was indeed accused of witchcraft in her lifetime, is shown as an actual functioning witch, capable of summoning up mists and storms at sea. She passes her powers on to her daughter and grand-daughter, who together use magic to scupper Henry Tudor's invasion of 1483. Elizabeth of York, Henry's future wife, manages to predict the advent of the Virgin Queen and the end of the Tudor dynasty, thus giving those upset by Richard III's death in battle something to cheer. This isn't merely changing history, but asking viewers to believe in magic. Actual magic.

So to Bosworth, the nadir of the series and possibly the all-time worst battle sequence ever filmed: even worse than the ladies of the Women's Institute in Monty Python, who re-enacted historical battles by attacking each other with handbags. To be fair, the BBC clearly lacked the budget to stage the battle properly - that would require a cast of thousands - but in that case it shouldn't have been attempted. The sight of about thirty extras running around a snowy forest (snow, in August) throwing packets of fake blood at each other before Lord Stanley came charging to Tudor's rescue with his mighty retinue of five dudes, set me chuckling and harrumphing for hours.

Turning away from the horrors of The White Queen, we have The Tudors, the most recent attempt to dramatise the life of Henry VIII. Bluff King Hal has appeared many times on screen, perhaps the best being Keith Michell's performance as the aging king through all the stages of his life, back in the 1970s. The '70s was the high point of 'responsible' historical drama, with the fiery Angevins depicted in the 'The Devil's Crown', starring Brian Cox as Henry II, and 'Shadow of the Tower', with an astonishing performance by James Maxwell as Henry VII. Stagey and low-budget these shows may appear now, but the quality of the scripts, acting and research are on a different planet to that served up by modern dramas.

Back to The Tudors, and the central performance by Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry. Quite apart from the the factual errors littered throughout the show - Henry's sisters are merged into one for convenience, and Cardinal Wolsey is shown cutting his own throat - Meyers is the big problem. A fine actor in his own right, he neither looks like Henry, and fails to convince as Henry, no matter how loudly or often he storms about, chewing up the scenery. In fact his Henry comes across as a bit of a whining prat, no more so than when he insists on vaulting a river to continue hunting, and ends up face-down in the drink. The best is saved for last, when Meyers deals with Henry's weight and health problems in later life by limping about with a cane and adopting a strange faux-Irish accent. At no point does he lose his sexy six-pack or suffer any loss in looks, besides a touch of Just For Men-style grey at the temples.

Other than venting - hey, this is my blog and I'll vent if I want to - my point is to ask this question: what makes for good, compelling historical drama? One in which events and personages are significantly altered, sometimes beyond recognition, or in which the 'true' story is told with as much accuracy and honesty as possible, known facts permitting?

Perhaps there is no 'right' answer - I have heard it said recently that without conjecture, any historical drama will lack interest - but I know which way I lean...especially if guff like The White Queen is fated to be the norm from now on.

Any thoughts welcome :)

* The portrayal of Margaret Beaufort needs little comment from me. It will surely go down in TV history as one of the most eccentric, crazed depictions of a historical character ever committed to screen.



  1. David. I don't often agree with you, but for all you say here I do . Very well said, The only thig good about the potrayal of Margaret Beaufort was the actress herself . She had an awful role but she played it well IMHO..

  2. I much prefer a historical drama to be told with as much accuracy and honesty as possible, known facts permitting, which generally leaves plenty of room for speculation as we don't know all the facts. I also prefer that the costumes and settings have something to do with the period in question, which the Tudors didn't make an attempt at (had to stop watching it when the King of France took off his doublet and wasn't wearing a shirt, or maybe it was at the masque scene where the ladies were dressed in mid-20th C wedding undergarments).

    1. True, Eryn - I think TWQ had some glaring errors in the costume department as well!

  3. I enjoyed the Tudors but have to agree it was hard to see Myers as Henry, even though he's a good actor and I'm looking forward to watching him in the upcoming Dracula series. I caught the first episode of Reign on the CW the other day about Mary Queen of Scots and it was pretty awful - modern jargon phrasing and modern music to attract the younger crowd - the same problem I had with the new Great Gatsby film with its hip-hop soundtrack. I know these programs are trying to attract a younger generation but they do nothing for those of us who really want to understand those time periods.

    1. Hi Tyler! I haven't seen any of the new Mary series, but heard lots of bad things. Sometimes I wonder if modern screenwriters are even capable of interpreting the past in any sort of 'authentic' fashion.

  4. I had to stop watching the Tudors. I could not understand why the series started with Henry VIII rather than his much more interesting father Henry VII. Like you I also had a real problem with JRM. When he had one of his hissy fits, I just wanted to tell him to go and sit on the naughty step. My favourite Henry was Ray Winstone, who brought some of the brute of Henry to the role.
    I thought Amanda Hale was a good choice for the part of Margaret but the script they gave her was terrible. What was she doing wandering round the battlefield at Bosworth when she was under house arrest at Stanley’s manor of Latham in Lancashire.
    I would like to see her play the part again but with a realistic script, or at least one which sticks to the actual historic events.
    Saint Dickon, was so virtuous that it was all Anne and Cicely who pushed him to become king. I know Anne was Warwick’s daughter but I have never seen her as Lady Macbeth.
    There have been some good historic al films but The Tudors and The White Queen do not rank among them.

  5. Dear David, but you do have to agree that The White Queen has managed to achieve what seemed impossible. After so many centuries it united the Yorksists and the Lancastrians :-) The followers of both houses have been outraged at the aforementioned inaccuracies :-)

  6. People tend to never point out that JRM styled his old Henry character by studying Marlon Brando in the Godfather . His portrayal of an old Henry/Italian mafia boss had me on the verge of angry tears and hilarious laughter all in the span of two minutes. What a sham that was.

    1. I didn't know that! Yes, epic fail on JRM's part...

    2. You tube the last episode and watch him . You will see it in a whole new light.