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!