Nonsense and sensibility


When you’ve got a goodlooking cast romping away together there’s apparently no need for historical accuracy. The Tudors starts this week, and while it’s essentially nonsense, it’s also young, dumb and full of fun.

Believe it or not, a few decades ago it was not uncommon for some British children to be banned by their parents from watching UK channel ITV because it was perceived as being vulgar television with little cultural worth. This meant that 33 per cent of TV’s output was off limits because it was a bad influence – there were only three channels in those days. The morally guarded children were only allowed to watch the BBC with its dedication to education, correct pronunciation and an output that was inoffensive, informative and reverential.

I wasn’t one of those kids, so in addition to sensible programmes like Panorama and Life On Earth, I grew up watching no-brainers like The Benny Hill Show and Play Your Cards Right. Looking back, it’s unlikely that these shows directly led to the moral collapse of society. But they did prove to be extremely popular, so channels started chasing the ratings by dumbing down and sexing up programmes. After all, sex sells and you get nothing for unwatched quality – not in this game.

Increasingly, even the starch collared BBC was adding sex and gratuity. And this brings us right up to now and The Tudors. Although created by an American company, it is the reaction to its broadcast in Britain that resonates. The Tudor period and the life of Henry VIII is well known and detailed, but here the notorious royal is played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. So instead of the red-haired, chicken-bone throwing, portly king of history, we get a dark haired, buff metrosexual.

A steamy scene between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, appears a few minutes into the first episode and pretty much sets the tone for the entire Nonsense and sensibility 10-episode run. The amount of sex in the series is vastly disproportional to the story, but it sells.

Even naughtiness, however, is of the clean, white-toothed, neatly pressed (though shockingly anachronistic) tunic variety, rather than anything accurate to the period. We also learn – through a naked dream sequence – that Anne Boleyn was extremely well-groomed for a woman of her era.

Accuracy, it would seem, is not The Tudors strong point. From radiators and asphalt driveways to a scene where a flintlock musket gun is fired a century before they were invented, the show takes some big liberties with the truth – and thus, people were not happy. And by people, I mean those who care about factual history – ooh, there were dozens of complaints. Most other people, millions of them in fact, loved it.

Television is dumbing down in search of viewers, but don’t blame your old friend the tube. Instead fault the majority of people who watch it. In the search for ratings all you have to do is give the people what they want. And what they want is big , fat, clap-like-a hungry- seal, dumb television. An intelligent and thoughtful series like The Wire receives nothing but the highest praise from critics, and gets 846,000 viewers (for the latest episode in the US) while the top rated show forthe last three years (with peak audience of 34.2million) is American Idol, which is essentially just televised karaoke.

So a romp-filled historically inaccurate bonk-a-thon with violence has big hit written all over it. It’s British history dumbed down, sexed up, made-over, and shoved in your face like a shiny golden codpiece.That said, period dramas done ‘properly’ are regularly the most boring pieces of television ever made. I’m not talking about thing like the excellent Rome or Deadwood (set in 1870s America) or Mad Men (set in the early 60s), but those tedious Regency-period romps where RADA voiced luvvies fawn, swoon and practically beg for BAFTAS.

The Tudors aims to distance itself from those series, but goes so far the other way that it utterly alienates anyone who wants to see a good historical epic that shows what life was like in the days of the most famous king of England. It’s more Carry On Henry than a serious drama. A spokesman for the BBC responded to the criticisms by stating: ‘The Tudors is not a documentary drama and as with all dramas, it is reasonable to expect a fair amount of artistic license. BBC Acquisitions hoped to attract a new, younger audience to history which we feel we have achieved.’

The following week, King Henry challenges The Bishop of Arsenal to a duel on the Nintendo Wii and then describes Anne of Cleves as being ‘bootylicious’. OK, it didn’t actually go that far, but even if it had, most people wouldn’t have cared. The Tudors was watched by over two million viewers. It’s just a matter of time before school essays on Hamlet are going to be reduced to tech-savy kids texting, ‘2b r not 2b dat iz da q?’ to an interactive website for coursework credits and free ringtones, so the success of The Tudors comes as no surprise.

But if you can suspend your disbelief there’s enough to make it worth a look. While Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII is pretty insipid, Sam Neill is good as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, although this isn’t something where you sit back and enjoy the acting and tone of it all. You disengage and let it wash over you. Much like the latest adaptation of Robin Hood (screened here last year), the series eschews realism in favour of ratings.

If you want realistic then watch Deadwood or The Wire, but if you’d rather see romping, then the royal context here is a thinly veiled pretext to show just that. And at times it’s all rather fun. But then, I did grow up watching a fat man being chased at high speed by a group of women in lingerie.

From Time Out, February 2008

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