The BBC’s ‘Tudor Court’ season (‘where every move could be your last’ apparently) was launched this week with first a programme on Anne Boleyn’s downfall, ‘The Last Days of Anne Boleyn’ and then another on Thomas More, ‘Henry VIII’s Enforcer.’
The figure of Thomas More is explored by Diarmaid MacCulloch, in what is presented as a revisionist portrait of a man usually figured as grasping and evil. Hmmmm. This seems to me to be a fairly lame attempt at revisionism given I’m sure that anyone who did the Tudors at school learned MacCulloch’s now standard account of More as a devoted reformer, originator of both the Church of England and the constitutional monarchy. To be honest both claims are a little dubious and smack of reading history backwards but oh well. Furthermore anyone who read ‘Wolf Hall’ is now probably in love with Cromwell, so I’m not sure his image is really in such desperate need of a makeover.
The less well-known snippets of his early history were the interesting thing; such as his work abroad for town guilds, and his early involvement in Wolsey’s institutions in Ipswich and Oxford, both of which involved dissolving monasteries before it became fashionable practice. MacCulloch presents clearly (despite an irritating tick of pronouncing ‘Boleyn’ as ‘Bullen’, that’s what’s called being too clever for your own good) and it’s filmed by the BBC so of course it looks stunning, with particularly effective use being made in early scenes of the Thames. However, I’m not sure whether the programme ever really gets a grip on the character of Cromwell, we might leave knowing what he did, but I wasn’t quite sure who MacCulloch though he was.
I found the programme on Anne Boleyn much more interesting and engaging. Here, instead of a single narrator, dictating his views, we were presented with a panel of historians and novelists, including Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory, David Starkey, George Bernard and Alison Weir (nice to see some strong female representation here, thanks BBC!). This meant that we got some real debate, and instead of simply narrating a story, we got a more multi-faceted programme as the historical controversies were opened up before us, offering three or four possible narratives, without any attempt to present a single conclusion. What’s more, the format offered the opportunity to throw some excellent historical shade, with Greg Walker dismissing Mantel with “I don’t think that works as an argument” and Susannah Lipscomb declaring that “we’re making all sorts of leaps” to which Starkey replys “sorry, if this isn’t evidence I don’t know what is.” Bring your popcorn and gather round children!
Once again brilliantly filmed, they made the interesting decision of hiring actors to play all the main figures which I think is always dangerous as it can start to look a little bit too much like ‘The Tudors’ for anyone to take seriously. This certainly walked the line, but on the whole avoided being too cheesy. What’s more, we certainly got a clear picture of Anne; the historians may have disagreed on the whys and wherefores but they seemed pretty much in concord on the character of England’s most fascinating queen. I was drawn in, interested, and engaged. Nicely done.
All in all, this bodes well for the rest of the series; still to come are episodes on Henry VII and Tyndale. The BBC evokes the drama of the period without ever sensationalising and has created thoroughly informative and thought-provoking television.