03 January 2008

But that Your Royal Pleasure Must Be Done

I don't watch TV. Not ever. Except when I do (although even then, it is really "watching computer" rather than the phat widescreen TV of which Doktor Landlord is so proud). I am currently watching two series: The Tudors and Gossip Girl. The former is, of course, the "real" story of Henry VIII and why he turned out to be the man he did (or, better, didn't) by focusing on the early years of his reign (i.e. when he fancied the French knickers off Anne Boleyn but she wouldn't put out, hence Le Divorce or "Our Great Matter" as they called it), albeit with an irritating title sequence with Jonathan Rhys Meyers telling us that if we want to understand the story, we have to go back to the start and giving us piercing blue-eyed gazes (in fact, so does all of the cast, including Anne Boleyn who was famous for her dark eyes; relatively, this historical accuracy barely matters). The latter is "your one and only guide to the lives of Manhattan's elite."

They might be separated by 500 years but the two programmes are basically about the same thing: gossip, scandal, bitchiness, betrayal and great dresses among the ruling classes. The skirts are shorter and the hair is straighter in GG but otherwise the shows have a lot in common. Truces are made and broken. Affairs commence and vaporise. Punches are exchanged. Oh, and the alpha male always comes out on top, even (and especially) when he has been outwitted.

The Tudors is of the Elizabeth: The Golden Age with regards to historical accuracy: dates are moved to fit the plot, characters (particularly the seemingly infinite line of Thomas Howards, Dukes of Norfolk, with their very noble blood and their tendency to hover just on the opposing side to the crown in any argument) merge. They also get a lot hotter when played by modern actors. Charles Brandon, one of the king's favourites who was made Duke of Suffolk and who is most famous for being Mary, Queen of Scots' grandfather, was definitely as hot as his actor,Henry Cavill, in my history textbook.

Everyone is hot, in fact; if the show gets as far as wifey number four, I'm sure even the Mare of Cleeves would be hot. I suppose this is the fault of Rome, which sexed up the Roman period big time (not that it really needed much help in that area), and set the example. The Tudors opens in about 1517 (the timing is not exact given that crucial events are often shown in the wrong order; for example, Henry's sister Margaret (a combination of Henry's real sisters Margaret and Mary) is married off to the King of Portugal on the condition that she can marry who she chooses (Brandon) next); in reality, Mary married the ageing King of France, Louis XII, who was long since dead at this point in The Tudors).

Henry is devastated because he has no heir and it's clearly all Catherine's fault because she only gave him a daughter and lots of stillborn children. Except, he only starts panicking about the lack of male heir after he falls for Anne Boleyn, the beautiful, dark fox brought up in the French court and so "well versed in those Frenchwomen's trickeries" (not so much as her sister Mary who became the mistress of the King of France and the King of England, though presumably not at the same time (brings a new meaning to détente, I guess)). Henry wants Anne. Anne (and her aspiring father and grasping uncle (Norfolk)) wants Henry but she knows of his habit to grow bored once he's got what he wants (some things never change). So she tells him no nookie until they are married, at which point, he knows he has to have this divorce and that god demands it; so much so that Henry won't feel pure and at ease until he has it. At least, that's what he tells Catherine, Wolsey, the Pope and the whole damn country. No one really supported the divorce except Anne but of course what everyone else thought mattered very little because Henry always got what he wanted.

I've reached episode five, where Anne finally gives in to Henry's marriage proposals, on New Year's Day, 1527. She sends a ship pendant with a maiden and a diamond on as her message of acceptance; Henry, of course, being the ship and Anne the diamond. The incident is also reported in David Starkey's Six Wives, which I am currently reading; in fact, most of the historical details of The Tudors are taken from this or from Wikipedia, presumably by someone who is numerically dyslexic with regards to dates.

Being TV, though, it's not enough for Henry to work his way through a whole menagerie of mistresses or for Princess Margaret to kill her old husband so she can marry the hottie or for your average 16th century scandal, so they also introduce a gay sub-plot: one of the king's favourites, William Compton, has a thing for the (frankly weird-looking) court musician, Thomas Tallis, who won't kiss him because he doesn't love Compton, although eventually they do, in a dark alley.

More shocking still is how old Sam Neill looks as Cardinal Wolsey; I almost didn't recognise him from his Jurassic Park days, although I suppose even that was 15 years ago. Of course, he's bound to be made a head shorter (how dare they steal Keanu's joke in Speed?) before too long (perhaps even this season, which was actually shown last year) even though in real life he died before he could be executed for treason. His crime? Despite everything he had done for Henry (scheming, sneaky bastard though he was), he came down on the wrong side of Our Great Matter and when push came to shove, Henry picked Anne.

Gossip Girl would have a lot to say about that. She knows all too well the power of factions and politics and choosing sides carefully. She would never be caught on the wrong side of any argument. Few powerful people in the 16th century were so lucky; even Henry's secretary, Richard Pace, who was driven to the point of repeated nervous breakdowns on account of dishing Henry's gossip to Wolsey. And vice-versa. It seems that gossip transcends all ages.

Surely, though, the only thing worse than being talked about...is not being talked about.

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