Sunday, November 28, 2010

Rewriting History The Right Way: The Tudors

At the recent Gemini Awards (Canada's version of the Emmys), The Tudors deservedly took home the prize, for its third season, as Best Series. Almost immediately, there was much gnashing of teeth and wrenching of clothing by the chattering classes because they felt “it wasn't Canadian enough.” I know it was not an earnest drama like Wild Roses, or an insufferable comedy, such as the Canadian-set and overrated Little Mosque On the Prairie, or Corner Gas, but I always thought that the definition of "Best" was the best produced program that year. Since there was a lot of Canadian money involved (it was an Irish/Canadian co-production), and a wealth of Canuck talent was on display both in front of and behind the camera (for example, Jeremy Podeswa (Fugitive Pieces), directed several episodes throughout the show's four year run), in my books, The Tudors qualified as Canadian. Okay, it didn't "tell a Canadian story" (obliquely, I think it did, because the actions of Henry VIII in the 16th century still has an impact on Canada today), but who cares? Are we that blinkered that we should only be telling Canadian stories? And who decides what those are?

Also nominated that night were Flashpoint and The Republic of Doyle, both fine shows, but I guarantee that if either one had won, the chatterers would have complained about them too. Flashpoint is a Toronto-based cop show and The Republic of Doyle is a light drama set in St. John's, Newfoundland, clearly inspired by The Rockford Files. One would be too action packed, the other too frothy. Me, I've seen enough of "serious" coming-of-age-on-the-Prairies stories for one lifetime (unless someone decides to adapt Ernest Buckler's harrowing The Mountain and the Valley, that is). And as I said in my Remembrance Day post (click here), I'm tired of films and TV shows that only show the Canadian military catastrophes. The Tudors was a quality show by any definition.

Created and completely written by Michael Hirst (Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age), the series examined Henry VIII and his six wives. Henry was played by the handsome (and thin) Jonathon Rhys-Myers (an Irishman, ironically, considering what Henry did to the Irish). A wise decision was taken early on not to have Rhys-Myers wear a fat suit as Henry aged, but to show the ravages of time in different ways. Rhys-Myers portrayal was daring on several levels. Here was the lead in a TV series who was, quite frankly, a narcissistic monster. He thought nothing of killing not only citizens and friends who displeased him, but more than one of his wives too. He wanted what he wanted when he wanted it. Yet, throughout the show, Rhys-Myers managed to still bring us into Henry's emotional life and, remarkably, show us his (agreeably stunted) humanity. By the exceptional and moving finale, we came to understand Henry even though we were repelled by his actions.

Let's get one thing straight. This show was not a historical document (many have complained about historical inaccuracies), but rather a very adult soap opera (there is plenty of frank language and nudity, considering this was network television). As such, it was thoroughly entertaining because it compressed and adjusted historical events and characters in service of the stories that Hirst was telling. It was not an attempt to be slavish to history. Among the performers who shone either throughout the show, or at some point during its run, were the following: Sam Neill as Cardinal Wosley, Natalie Dormer as that shameless hussy Anne Boelyn, Sarah Bolger as Princess Mary (aka, Bloody Mary), Henry Cavill as Henry's friend and confidante Charles Brandon, Gabriel Anwar as Henry's consumptive sister Margaret, Torrance Coombs as the doomed Culpepper, Tamzin Merchant as the young and naive Queen Catherine Howard, and even singer Joss Stone as Anne of Cleves. These were all juicy roles that any performer from anywhere would crawl across crushed glass to get to play. The quality of the show in terms of the scripts, sets, costumes and obvious money spent would be all the encouragement any actor would need to step up their game.

Contrast this with The Pillars of the Earth – based on Ken Follett's novel, it tells the story of the trials and tribulations of building a cathedral in 12th century England – the miniseries that recently completed its run on The Movie Network and is now on DVD. Again, lots of money was spent and the production looked authentic, but because of weaknesses in some performances, and a spot-it-coming-a-mile-away cliche-ridden script, the show, though mildly entertaining, never managed to reach the you-are-in-that-place perfection that The Tudors achieved season after season. Pillars was critically praised and a hit when it ran on cable in the US, so no doubt next year it will receive and win the Emmy for Best Miniseries, but you won't hear anybody kvetch that it's not American enough.

Jonathan Rhys-Myers & Natalie Dormer
What it comes down to is this: In its third season, was The Tudors "the best" dramatic show on Canadian television, or was it not? My answer is obvious, because over four years this show shone as a star attraction on CBC, and it doesn't matter a whit if it was Canadian enough. But lord help the producers if its fine, final, just-completed fourth season (and it is already out on DVD) wins the Gemini next year. There will be rioting in the streets, or at least more chattering from the usual suspects.

 David Churchill is a film critic and the author of The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

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