How do you dramatise the life of Henry VIII? Well, Shakespeare did it, albeit at the end of his career and with a collaborator; but even Will, who found the life of Henry VI so pregnant with dramatic potential that he had to drag out the story to three parts, managed to knock off the old serial monogamist in one play. ITV, on the other hand, offers us a two-porter, long on beautiful photography and big names, but possibly a little short on intellectual content.
But let's be fair. As I watched the first part last Sunday 1 did notice that Peter Morgan's script frequently achieved literary weight, and perfectly walked the inevitable tightrope between blatant anachronism and TV Oldspeak. The performances were uniformly sound, the direction sure-footed.
But before I sat down to write my own reaction I broke my normal rule, and read some of the broadsheet criticism of the film, all of which focused on the lead. The consensus was that Ray Winstone only got the part of Henry because Sid James is no longer with us; in other words that Winstone's Estuary accent undermined his performance, and indeed the entire production. Yet all these critics, while being snobbish about Winstone's inability to do the RP, also had to parade their own erudition by pointing out that we don't have a clue how people spoke in Tudor times, and that therefore Henry's elocution in the film didn't much matter. Yes. So why mention it in the first place. other than to advertise your own superior education? Do your jobs, guys.
For the more interesting point about the film is how that particular period of our history was presented to the viewing public. Is that how the English Reformation actually happened? And in the end, though Henry VIII didn't really address that question, it got it right as television drama. Morgan wrote a script about character and human motivation, and wrote it beautifully; whether those people were really like that is irrelevant, for I would rather see a writer pick up a ball and run within the touchlines of an historical story than see some dramatisation of history, one of those all-too-frequent history-without-tears exercises lather than which you'd be better off reading a book. Of course the philosophical issues, the religious imperatives of the day, were not addressed as Robert Bolt so magnificently did in A Man for All Seasons, but such a project would not now get commissioned for television. That's a shame. but we can still be encouraged by the fact that this Henry VIII was commissioned at all, and on ITV at that. There is a certain irony to the fact that the BBC's original remit was to inform, educate and entertain, and that this latest high-profile offering from commercial television has done that rather better than anything recently produced by the state broadcaster.
Henry VIII informs us of human motivation through good characterisation and dialogue, educates regarding the political milieu in which that king operated, and entertains with good pace and action sequences (for the galloping, liveried horses are of course irresistible for a director, and why not? I enjoyed them).