Saturday, 6 October 2007

THE TUDORS 1.1 – "Episode 1"

Saturday, 6 October 2007
Writer: Michael Hirst
Directors: Charles McDougall & Steve Shill

Cast: Nick Dunning (Boleyn), Sam Neill (Cardinal Wolsey), Callum Blue (Knivert), Henry Cavill (Charles Brandon), Henry Czerny (Norfolk), Jeremy Northam (Sir Thomas More), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (King Henry VIII), Maria Doyle Kennedy (Queen Katherine), Natalie Dormer (Anne Boleyn), Steven Waddington (Buckingham), Kristen Holden-Reid (William Compton), Joe van Moyland (Thomas Tallis), Blathnaid Mckeown (Princess Mary), Sean Pertwee (English ambassador in Italy), Barry McGovern (Bishop Bonnivet), Anna Brewster (Anna Buckingham), Catherine Byrne (Alice More), Ruta Gedmintas (Lady Blount), Perdita Weeks (Mary Boleyn), Geoff Minogue (Boleyn's Secretary), Jonathan White (Hopkins), Arthur Riordan (Priest in Confessional), Eric Higgins (Groom), Mark Lambert (William Cornish), Slaine Kelly (Jane Howard), Jonathan Ryan (French Ambassador), Alan Devine (Wolsey's Secretary), Brendan McCormack (Captain), Marcello Magni (Sarto) & Aidan Turner (Bedoli)

King Henry VIII prepares for war with France, but receives cautious counsel from the powerful Cardinal Wolsey, who urges a peace treaty. Meanwhile, Henry learns that his queen's lady-in-waiting, Elizabeth Blount, is pregnant with his child…

"I've decided I will not shave again until we meet. My beard will be a token of Universal Friendship. Of the love between us."
-- King Henry (Jonathan Rhys Meyers)

The BBC is undoubtedly the home of quality period drama, with a Jane Austen or Charles Dickens adaptation usually lurking in production; ready to win plaudits, BAFTAs and perhaps an international Emmy.

But, while they're fine pieces of work, they tend to have that academic, stuffy sensibility that prevents them capturing a younger audience's attention. But all that has changed recently, in the wake of Hollywood historical smash-hits like Gladiator -- which led to the HBO/BBC co-production of Rome; a slick, glossy, violent, dramatic and intelligent series.

Hoping to tap a similar vein is The Tudors, created by Michael Hirst (Elizabeth); a 10-part series from US cable channel Showtime, about the daily life of a youthful King Henry VIII, filled with sumptuous location shooting, lashings of sex, some violence and the obligatory poetic license with historical fact.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Alexander) plays our 'enry -- not as the enormous, red-bearded, gluttonous older man, but as a dashing, vibrant, highly-sexed twentysomething. The tagline for the series claims "it's good to be king" -- and you can't argue with that, as Henry shags his way through Episode 1, declares war on France like a petulant kid, and generally gets his way.

Of course, in the great tradition of all-powerful movers-and-shakers, Henry is guided by behind-the-scenes voices, most notably Cardinal Wolsey (Sam Neill), who successfully manipulates Henry into forgoing an expensive war to instead focus on a Treaty Of Universal Peace.

Henry is obsessed with immortality, inspired by Henry V's victory over the French at Agincourt. He wants his name to echo down the centuries, by peaceful or violent means. This treaty of non-aggression, a sort of U.N precursor for the major European states, will do just nicely…

But away from the political aspects of Episode 1, The Tudors also sets in motion Henry VIII's infamously desperate attempts to secure himself an heir to the throne. Katherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy) has only produced a daughter, Princess Mary – and matters are complicated when his queen's lady-in-waiting, Lady Elizabeth Blount (Ruta Gedmintas), becomes pregnant…

Seeds of a revolt are also sewn, when the Duke of Buckingham (Steven Waddington), the "rightful heir to the throne" as a direct descendant of Edward II, plots the overthrow King Henry.

The Tudors gets off to an enjoyable start, although it will take time for the characters to become more than faces to familiar names. Jonathan Rhys Meyers makes the best impression as the young King, who's thankfully not written as a spoiled brat, but looks to be nicely textured. Sam Neill is also very charismatic as Wolsey, giving the episode a touch of class with his expressive face and vocal cadence.

Supporting characters are quite vague at the moment, although Jeremy Northam made a good impression as Henry's long-time friend Thomas Moore and Steven Waddington was suitably bitter and aggressive as the Duke of Buckingham. Of the actresses, only Maria Doyle Kennedy was memorable as Katherine of Aragon, giving a nice performance as a queen stuck in a sexless marriage, wracked with grief over the death of their four-week old son.

The production looks to have a budget to do justice to the time period, with gorgeous location shooting in Ireland, beautiful effects-work of period buildings and authentic-looking sets and costumes.

As all series premieres should do, it outlined the situation competently and introduced the expansive cast. It can only improve from here, now the scene-setting is done. Of course, it helped that Henry VIII is a historical figure most people are familiar with, but the script refused to sit back and tick-off the Henry VIII clichés. It was a minor reinvention; not a tour de force for the genre, but an entertaining prelude to the series.

Historians may bristle at the liberties the script takes with chronology and other details, but The Tudors looks to be a lavish, fiercely entertaining series, full of back-stabbing enemies, political unrest, wanton violence and marital drama. Oh, and lots of shagging.

It's great to be King!

5 October 2007
BBC2, 9.00 pm