The Boleyns: A Scandalous Family – BBC 2

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Just as if there haven’t been eleventy billion programmes about Anne Boleyn already, BBC 2 have decided that we need some more.  Why talk about any one of the zillions of fascinating but neglected historical figures when you can talk about someone who’s already been (apologies for the bad pun) done to death?   Yes, all right, I didn’t *have* to watch it, but I always watch historical programmes!  Incidentally, is it me or does the woman playing Anne Boleyn look strangely like Wallis Simpson?

Having said all that, this first episode was really rather interesting, because, rather than just talking about the goings-on of Anne, George and Mary, much of it was about Thomas Boleyn’s career as a diplomat, and his dealings with some of the fascinating Continental figures of the time.  He never got to meet Ferdinand of Aragon or the wonderfully-nicknamed Philip the Handsome, but he got rather pally with Margaret of Austria, daughter of the opportunistic Maximilian and sister of the aforementioned Philip, the first of the various female Habsburg regents of the Netherlands.  And he also got to meet Louis XII and Francis I of France.  The dealings of Henry VIII and Francis I always make me laugh.  Talk about “mine’s bigger than yours”.

Also, there was a lot of talk about Cardinal Wolsey.  My best ever mark for an A-level history essay was for one about Cardinal Wolsey, so, for that wholly irrational reason and no other, I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for him.

This series is claiming to be a bit different by focusing on the Boleyn family rather than just on Anne.  And calling them “A Scandalous Family” is really rather unfair.  Yes, Anne, her sister Mary and her brother George were all involved in a number of real and invented scandals, but let’s give the Boleyns a bit of credit for making it to court in the first place, given that, only a few generations earlier, they’d been a family of tradespeople.  Anne’s father and grandfather climbed the greasy pole by marrying aristocrats, but they wouldn’t have been in the position to do that if they hadn’t already done well for themselves.  The courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII weren’t exactly what you’d call meritocratic, but look at the backgrounds of some of the big names there.  Cardinal Wolsey, son of a butcher from Ipswich.  Thomas Cromwell, son of a blacksmith/pub landlord from Putney.   A bit of luck and a bit of nous and there were chances to get in there; and that’s what the Boleyns did.

The programme did make this point, but it contradicted itself all the way through.  We were repeatedly told that the only way into the inner circle at court was through being a member of the aristocracy, and that Thomas Boleyn’s only chance of promotion was therefore through the assistance of his wife’s relatives, the Howards.  But we were also repeatedly told that Wolsey, the butcher’s son, was far more powerful and influential than the Howards were, that being associated with the Howards was actually pretty risky because they kept narking the king, and that Thomas Boleyn got ahead through his own savviness and the friendship of Wolsey.

And it was through his own charm that he persuaded Margaret of Austria to give young Anne a place at her court, and through his own savviness again that he saw that the wind was blowing in favour of an English alliance with France and got Anne a place at the French court.   Anne, equally savvy, made the most of it.

Mary, by contrast, was portrayed as pretty much being pushed into Henry’s bed by Wolsey, who was made to sound like a glorified pimp, scouring the court for pretty women and giving them no choice but to become Henry’s mistresses.  I don’t think that that was a very fair portrayal of what happened, from anyone’s viewpoint.

So, all in all, this wasn’t overly impressive – too many contradictions, and some rather odd takes on things.  But it was still worth watching – whether the second and third episodes, which will presumably just regurgitate all the Mary/Anne/George stuff that’s been said a million times before, will be equally worth watching, remains to be seen.

Come on, BBC.  The Tudors are not the only royal dynasty in English or British history.  Let’s have a few programmes about some of the others, please!

 

Anne Boleyn – Channel 5

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I’m not sure that we really needed yet another TV series about Anne Boleyn.  Her story’s been done to death (pun intended), and, consequently, most of the reaction to this has been either moaning that it’s old hat or else trying desperately to find a new angle on the story by talking about “othering”.  Obviously that’s not the fault of either the actors or the scriptwriters, but it’s hard to make a big impression when you’re covering a story than everyone’s heard a zillion times before.  There are so many neglected areas of history which Channel 5 could have chosen to cover instead.

On the plus side, this is a proper historical drama.  It’s no Versailles or The Tudors: it does actually stick to the real people and the real series of events.  Well, main events, anyway.  It’s also positive that it’s looking at things from Anne’s point of view, and that it’s showing her as a deeply intelligent woman who championed the Reformation, rather than just as a scheming tart who stole another woman’s fella.

However, the dialogue’s really rather naff.  It tries to be clever, but doesn’t always manage it.   Some of it’s overloaded with metaphors (there are a lot of metaphors, symbols and omens) – ” Ooh, Jane, if you don’t know the rules, you shouldn’t play the game” – and some of it sounds like someone trying to be Jane Austen but not succeeding.  Jodie Turner-Smith’s really doing her best with it – her delivery of some of Anne’s bitchier lines reminded me of Joan Collins in Dynasty – but it’s just not that well-written.  The Boleyns all get some good lines – George and Jane Boleyn both come across very well, George as his sister’s chief supporter and Jane as a thoroughly nasty piece of work, and Cromwell does too, but Henry’s character didn’t come across at all.  And what on earth was that scene with Anne kissing Jane Seymour supposed to be about?  Jane, incidentally, is presented as a simpering little ninny.  Oh dear.  I thought we’d got past that idea.

The costumes are great.  It’s nice to see Bolton Castle being used for most of the indoor shots: I’ve been there a couple of times.  And the series is all right: I’ve seen far worse.  But this subject’s been covered so many times before that any new series would need to be absolutely outstanding to make a really big impression, and it isn’t.

There’s been a lot of talk about the casting of a black actress to play a white historical figure.  There’s actually been a lot of talk about casting lately, and it’s getting a bit silly.  A non-Latina actress was pressurised into giving up the role of Maria in West Side Story; Russell T Davies said that straight actors shouldn’t play gay roles; the casting of British actress Cynthia Eriwo, rather than an American actress, as Harriet Tubman was criticised; people have questioned the casting of a Catholic actress as the Jewish heroine of Ridley Road; and, to cap it all, people moaned that Will Smith shouldn’t have been cast as Richard Williams because their skin isn’t exactly the same shade of black.  What next?  No-one should play a member of the Crawley family in Downton Abbey unless they’ve got a title?

Having said all that, I didn’t think it was appropriate to cast Helen Mirren, in her 70s, as Catherine the Great in her 30s, and that thing BBC 2 did with women playing male Shakespearean roles was daft.  So I suppose there are limits.  But let’s not get too hung up about “representative” casting, or we’re going to end up with roles being cast based on box-ticking rather on acting ability.  Just as long as there’s a level playing field.   If it’s OK for a black actress to play a white character or a gay actor to play a straight character, it’s OK for a white actress to play a black character or a straight actor to play a gay character, unless it’s a role where ethnicity or something else is a big part of the storyline.

What I’m not really getting is this waffle in some areas of the media about how choosing Jodie Turner-Smith because she’s a black actress, rather than just because she’s a good actress, is “identity casting” which is showing how Anne Boleyn was “othered”.  Er, what?   How long has “other” being a verb?  And no-one was “othered”.  Favourites and factions came and went at court, and, in Henry VIII’s time, that was complicated by the religious turmoil and the desire for a male heir.   When Anne lost favour, she didn’t have a party of supporters strong enough and loyal enough to stand up for her.  Nor did numerous other people who fell foul of Henry.  Joan of Navarre was accused of witchcraft, and Mary Beatrice of Modena was accused of bringing Jesuit priests to court to subvert James II.  No-one talks about them being, er, “othered”.

The problem is that so much has been said about Anne Boleyn that people end up scratching around trying to think of any new angle on her story.  It’s like some of the bizarre suggestions made in recent years about who killed the Princes in the Tower – everything there is to be said about the likely candidates has been said, so people come up with outlandish ideas just for the sake of saying something different.

Anyway, to get back to the actual programme, which has been rather overshadowed by the debate over the casting, it was, as I said, OK …  but this period in history’s been covered so many times, both in dramas and in documentaries, that it needed to be absolutely amazing to be memorable.  And it’s not bad, but amazing it isn’t.

The Fall of Anne Boleyn – Channel 5

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  I thought I’d heard all there was to hear about the fall of Anne Boleyn, but I must admit that I never knew that marmalade was involved.  It was apparently claimed that Anne used to meet her alleged lovers in the rooms of one of her ladies in waiting, which were also used for storing marmalade.  Why her ladies’ rooms were used for storing marmalade, I have no idea.  Her accusers claimed that, when a lover arrived, the lady in waiting would tell Anne that the marmalade was there.  I dread to think what Paddington Bear would make of this.

Marmalade aside, this was a very interesting trilogy of programmes, despite all the silly “let’s create an atmosphere of suspense” music – presumably everyone watching did actually know what was going to happen.  Yes, there have been a zillion programmes about Anne Boleyn, and I’d rather have seen one about a different queen; but Tracy Borman is an excellent and very enthusiastic presenter and made some very good points.

The idea of this was to retrace Anne’s steps in the days from her arrest to her execution.  A lot was made of the trial being a stitch-up.  I would have thought that everyone would take that for granted – was Anne ever going to be proclaimed innocent of all the trumped-up charges of adultery against her (and don’t tell me that any of them were true), any more than Cranmer’s court was ever going to find that Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was valid?  But, as Tracy Borman pointed out, maybe people at the time genuinely weren’t sure.  Was the reason it was all so rushed that Cromwell was worried that Henry would change his mind?  And why was there no coffin ready for Anne’s body?  Did the Tower officials genuinely not think that she was going to end up on the scaffold?   Interesting food for thought.

The other main theme was of Anne as a “feisty, outspoken … intellectual powerhouse … way ahead of her time and wasn’t prepared to accept women were second class citizens and weaker than men”.  I think a lot of people would say that about Catherine Parr, but it’s fascinating how Anne’s intelligence tends to be overlooked.  We know that she was a very intelligent woman.  We also know that she held strong views in favour of religious reform.  But she’s always cast as the tart who lured Henry into marriage.  Really, she tends to have a worse reputation amongst women than among men, because she’s seen as the ultimate enemy of the sisterhood, the nightmare of middle-aged women – the younger, more glamorous woman, who lures a man away from his faithful, loving wife.

That’s twaddle, of course.  It wasn’t her fault that Henry went after her.  She wanted to marry Harry Percy.  And, as Tracy pointed out, she wasn’t even particularly pretty.  Did she have alluring ways learnt at the French court?  Or could it actually be that Henry was attracted by her feistiness and intellect?   Looking at it that way would be quite a boost for feminist interpretations of events.

Come to that, the idea of Catherine of Aragon as a saintly figure who spent all her time sewing clothes for the poor doesn’t work either.  This is the woman, the daughter of Isabella of Castile, who was running the country (in Henry’s absence) at the time of Flodden Field, and sent Henry the bloodied surcoat of the dead James IV.  Interesting how English history, which is so Protestant, romanticises both Catherine of Aragon and Mary Queen of Scots.

Did Henry get fed up of Anne’s feistiness, and decide that he wanted a more docile wife?  Quite possibly.  But, ultimately, Anne, like Catherine, was disposed of because she didn’t produce a male heir.  The poor woman had just suffered a miscarriage, probably brought on by shock after Henry was involved in a jousting accident.  There was no sympathy for her.  Nor for Catherine, for all the babies she lost.  Out came charges of witchcraft – often used against women, rarely against men.  Out came charges of adultery: to impugn a woman, impugn her sexual morals.  Her alleged lovers were all executed as well.  Collateral damage.  Everyone turned against her, even her own uncle, to save their own skins.

Then again, by the latter part of Henry VIII’s reign, no-one was safe, man or woman, wife, cousin, old friend, counsellor.  And yet he still manages to be remembered as some kind of big hero: he’s arguably the most recognisable figure in English history.  And Anne is vilified.

Strange, isn’t it?  And even stranger to think that marmalade was involved in it all …

SIX The Musical

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This sounded like an utterly ridiculous idea – presenting the six wives of Henry VIII as “sassy” 21st century pop/rock princesses, seriously?! – but it worked brilliantly (although rather better with the last three wives than with the first three wives)!   My music collection has never got out of the 1980s so I can’t really comment on modern pop/rock  😉 , but it was very lively and entertaining.  And, hey, there weren’t even any glaring historical inaccuracies – apart from annoyingly referring to “Britain” and “the UK” rather than “England”.  It was really good.  It bothered me slightly that the composers were born in 1994 – surely anyone who was born in 1994 has no business being out of nappies, never mind writing award-winning musicals?! – but I genuinely enjoyed it.

The idea was that the six wives were going to choose who should be the leader of their girl band by way of each one singing about what a hard time she had, and the winner being the one who’d had it worst. I know – it sounded like one of those awful ideas that teachers come up with because they think it’ll attract kids’ interest.  Luckily, none of my history teachers ever made anyone sing.  I was the kid who won the school history prize but was told that I had to mouth the words in music lessons because my singing was so bad that it was putting the other kids off, so that combination really would not have worked for me.  Although one of the duo who wrote this studied history at university and then studied dance and musical theatre.   It must be amazing to be multi-talented like that 🙂 .

But we never sang in history lessons. Nor did we try to relate history to the present day.  That was a no-no.  “Anachronistic” – a very bad thing to be.  It does seem to be a trend now, though, and it can be quite annoying.  There was a programme on the BBC last year, which was supposed to be about the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses.  David Starkey, who really ought to know better, spent the entire time going on about Brexit.  What on earth has Martin Luther got to do with Brexit?  Very irritating.  However, there’ve always been schools of historical interpretation which are closely connected with events at the time – the Whigs, the Marxists, etc – so the idea of a #MeToo interpretation of events, which I think was partly what this was meant to be, is fair enough.

As was pointed out, the six wives are largely remembered each as one of six, and only in relation to Henry, rather than as six individuals. On the other hand, everyone knows their names because there were six of them.  People who aren’t particularly into history and wouldn’t be able to name the wives of any other English kings can recite the names of the six wives of Henry VIII with no trouble at all.  And the rhyme.  “Divorced, beheaded, died.  Divorced, beheaded, survived.”  It’s not actually accurate, because the marriage to Catherine of Aragon was declared not to have been a marriage at all, and the marriage to Anne of Cleves was annulled, but anyway.  It’s the best-known period in English history.  Let the Whig historians talk about the importance of the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution: it’s the soap opera-esque appeal of a man with six wives (much more so than, you know, the Reformation!) that gets the attention.

I hate getting things out of chronological order, but I’m going to make an exception here, because the way that this presented the fourth, fifth and sixth wives was great, whereas I was less impressed with the presentation of the first three wives. Yes, all right, all right, it was done like that so that they could get a range of different styles of music in, and I was probably the only person in the audience who was trying to make it into a serious historical thing; but I’m just like that.

Anne of Cleves, then. I loved this!   At school, I was taught that Anne of Cleves was “the Flanders mare”, the one whom Henry sent packing because she was ugly.  It was only later that I found out that – to be fair, I suppose they can’t really tell you this at school – what probably happened was that Henry wasn’t up to the job and tried to blame it on Anne’s physical appearance.  And there was no need to try to modernise this story, because it really is a story for the 2010s.  Henry decided to marry Anne (well, apart from her dowry, and the fact that no other foreign princess would have him) after seeing the overly flattering portrait of her painted by Holbein, and then claimed that he’d been tricked and that she looked nothing like it.  Yep.  Just like all those profile pics on Facebook or Tinder or Grindr or whatever, which have either been photoshopped or else show the person when they were younger and possibly slimmer.  Then he totally humiliated her by broadcasting this to the whole of Europe.  Poor Anne.

What you aren’t usually told is that, once the marriage had been annulled, Anne of Cleves was treated as if she were the king’s sister. She got to lead the luxurious life of a senior member of the royal family without having to put up with Henry, the pressure to produce an heir, or the fear of losing her head as soon as Henry’s eye began to wander.  She probably got the best deal of the lot.  And that is exactly how it came across in SIX.  Hooray!

Next up, Catherine Howard – the one who’s usually presented as a silly little tart. If the story of Anne of Cleves is a story for the social media age, the story of Catherine Howard is very much a #MeToo story.  She was a pretty young girl, taken advantage of by older men, and pushed into the arms of the king by her ambitious male relatives.  OK, it was incredibly stupid of her to have an affair after she was actually married to Henry, but she was looking for affection – and, by then, she’d been made to feel that this was all she was, someone whom men wanted, and only wanted for one thing.  I’m not sure that an Ariana Grande hairdo really fitted with her sad story, but it’s a story that is very ripe for re-telling through 21st century eyes.

And then Catherine Parr. There are opinion polls about all sorts around these days, but I’ve never seen one asking which of Henry VIII’s wives is people’s favourite!  Catherine Parr is mine.  My one big quibble with her is her appalling taste in men.  Thomas Seymour.  No, no, no!   Her song seemed as if it was all going to be a tale of woe about how she’d had arranged marriages to older men and then, just as she and Thomas had got together, Henry decided he wanted to marry her.  Marks for historical accuracy, OK, but all so negative!  But then, hooray, there was a second part to the song, all about how she was very well-educated and she wrote books and promoted female authors and artists.  Yay!! That’s why she’s my favourite of the six!

And I think we owe Catherine a huge debt for the role she played in Elizabeth’s education. I’m just going to do a bit of a David Starkey here, sorry, and say how much we could do with Elizabeth at the moment!   She had to cope with two rival factions, both of whom wanted everything (Reformation-wise, in her case) all their own way and seemed to show very little respect for other people’s opinions.  She had people trying to overthrow her – and, in her case, we’re talking imprisonment and probably execution, not just being replaced as party leader.  Hostility from Europe?  Philip II of Spain sent an Armada to try to invade her country, and the Pope pretty much said that people had a divine duty to assassinate her.

Makes those idiots in Brussels look like pussy cats by comparison. And she was probably the greatest ruler this country’s ever had.  I’m just saying!

Back to the beginning. Catherine of Aragon.  Everyone knows this bit, and it rings true in every period of history.  Man dumps his loyal wife of many years, to go off with someone younger and sexier.  Catherine is eternally cast as the wronged wife, Anne as the other woman.  It’s really interesting that, even though the Tudors were masters of propaganda, and it certainly didn’t suit Henry VIII for Catherine to be cast as a saint and martyr, nor Elizabeth for Anne to be seen as the baddie, this is the image that’s come down through the centuries.   Catherine’s song was the full sob story – shipped off to marry Arthur, widowed very young, treated very badly during her widowhood, then the loyal, loving, pious wife, dumped by Henry, separated from her only surviving child, all the children she lost.  Yes, that’s all true.

But, if we were doing “sassy”, couldn’t we have got the other side of Catherine in there as well? She was very much Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughter.  She masterminded Flodden Field, whilst Henry was messing about in Flanders.  She sent him James IV of Scotland’s bloodied surcoat, and I always get the impression that she’d quite like to have sent him James’s dead body as well.  She was a tough cookie.  She must have been, or else she’d have trotted off to a nunnery and let Henry and Anne get on with it.  Does even the #MeToo generation have to present her as nothing more than the wronged wife dumped for a younger model?

Then Anne Boleyn. What was going on here?!  She had a Bjork hairdo.  And spoke and sang like a chav.  I think she was actually meant to come across like a bored millennial,who was never off her mobile phone, but she did actually just come across as a chav.  Bjork, chav, Anne Boleyn … er, no, me neither!   The song also made her come across as being a bit thick and a victim of events.  No!  That was Catherine Howard!  I suppose at least they didn’t show her as a conniving tart who betrayed the sisterhood by stealing another woman’s husband, because it’s very unfair how history’s tended to do that – Anne, far from setting out to attract the king, wanted to marry Henry Percy, and was in an impossible position once Henry became interested in her – but she was anything but thick.

I know, I know! It was probably just about what fitted with different songs.  And the same with Jane Seymour.  She got a love song – and I suppose that was because they had to have a love song in there somewhere, because we all like a bit of soppy music.  But the song was about how Jane really loved Henry, and she was sad because she knew that the idea that she was the one he really loved only came about because she was the one who produced the son, and how sad it was that she and her son never knew each other because she died of childbirth fever.  The bits about Henry and Edward were true enough, but does anyone really think that Jane genuinely loved Henry?  I’m not keen on the Stepford Wife image of her, either.  I do think that she was a genuinely nice person, and I like the fact that she tried to reconcile him with both his daughters, but I also think that she was clever enough to know that, after what had happened to Anne Boleyn, her best bet was to keep her head down and her mouth shut, not that she was someone who didn’t have the guts to do anything else.

I seem to have done a lot of moaning there. Well, I do about the way they showed the first three wives, anyway!  I take things too seriously.  Sorry!!  But it was really entertaining – the music was great, even for those of us who are so out of touch that we can’t name a single song in the current top 40 (even though we can recognise most top ten songs from the second half of the 1980s just from listening to the first few beats) .  And the point about the need to think of these six women as six individuals is a quite serious and genuine historical point.  Also, this has the potential to reach an audience which historical novels or documentaries on BBC 4, however interesting, probably won’t.  There were a lot of kids there.  I really hope that they all went home and rushed to read up on the Tudors.  OK, they probably didn’t, but I can hope!   And, on a very wet and windy December evening, this was great entertainment, and it also made you think.  I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it, but I did 🙂 .