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King of the swingers
Telegraph, September 29, 2007

BBC2’s new drama shows a Henry VIII far removed from the ageing monster of legend. Its writer and stars tell Michael Deacon why they’ve sexed him up

Natalie Dormer, who plays Anne Boleyn, has just finished her final sex scene with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who plays Henry VIII. “We were laughing and joking a lot,” she says. “He was winking all the time and saying, ‘Bring me Jane Seymour, I’m done with this one!’”

The two were filming an episode of The Tudors, a tumultuous drama series about Henry VIII, which starts on BBC2 this Friday. It was originally made for American television, and appears to have been well received there (aside from a few jibes about the liberties its script takes with historical fact — about which more later). It was nominated for four Emmy awards, and gave its channel, Showtime, its highest viewing figures for a debut series in three years.

The Henry VIII it shows us isn’t the ageing monster we commonly see in paintings, though.

“It’s a more attractive and physical Henry that I’m playing,” says Jonathan Rhys Meyers. “This portrait is very different from the ‘big, fat, red-haired’ image.”

This is Henry in his twenties. Virile, energetic and impetuous, he thirsts for someone younger and more attractive than his wife, Catherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy); he lusts for war with the French; he is plagued by a snarling would-be usurper, the Duke of Buckingham (Steven Waddington).
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So he’s young and passionate. Fair enough. But, looking at our pictures, some might wonder if this Henry is just a little too hunky, a little too Hollywood. (The last time we saw Henry on the small screen, in ITV’s Henry VIII in 2003, he was played by the burly Ray Winstone.) Rhys Meyers is well-known for his pretty-boy roles, such as in Bend It Like Beckham and 2000’s BBC2 series Gormenghast.

The Tudors’ Anne Boleyn doesn’t exactly match the dowdy creature described by some historical sources, either. “It is a bit like, ‘Welcome to the beautiful people!’” admits Dormer (pictured right on our cover). “It was made for America, so there’s going to be a certain aesthetic.”

But writer and executive producer Michael Hirst says there was nothing cynical about the casting of the younger parts.

“When he was young, Henry was called ‘the handsomest prince in Christendom’,” says Hirst, who also wrote 1998’s Elizabeth, the acclaimed biopic of the young Elizabeth I starring Cate Blanchett, and its sequel Elizabeth: the Golden Age, out in November. “It may be a shock to some people, but it’s no less real for that.”

Looks aside, this portrayal of Henry isn’t always a kind one — he’s so comically vain that, before an audience with the king of France, he whispers to Sir Thomas Boleyn (Nick Dunning), “Is he tall? What about his legs? Are his calves strong, like mine?” But Rhys Meyers hopes that the series also reminds viewers that his character was in a number of respects ahead of his time.

“He was a modernist in many senses,” Rhys Meyers argues. “He founded the Church of England, he introduced divorce into the equation of marriage and he gave us Elizabeth I, a kind of founding feminist. And he was very well-read — he didn’t have to read himself, but others would read to him, so he was familiar with cutting-edge thinking.”

At first, The Tudors may look a little like a romp in the style of Rome, the BBC’s opinion-dividing orgy of sex and brutality. In the opening 25 minutes of episode one, we see three sex scenes.

“There’s no question it’s sexy, and why not?” says Hirst. “But I’d like to correct the idea that this is a romp. Over the course of the series, which represents 10 years, I suggest that Henry sleeps with six women. What I’m trying to explain is that Henry falls in love with Anne, and is ultimately undone by love. The series is more about love than sex. One of the differences with Rome is that in this you get hooked on the characters. It’s a soap opera and occasionally a thriller.”

One thing it certainly couldn’t pass for, as some American critics have pointed out, is a documentary. Hirst happily admits that he has reshaped history. He conflated Henry’s two sisters, Mary and Margaret, because there was already another Mary in the script. The age gap between Henry and Catherine appears far greater than it was in reality. Some events take place at the wrong time.

“Ultimately there are the demands of drama,” Hirst says. “Nobody comes out of Shakespeare’s Richard III and complains that Richard never really said, ‘Now is the winter of our discontent.’ I’d like to turn the discussion of The Tudors into whether the drama is powerful.”

And Rhys Meyers believes the series is accurate in another sense: true to the spirit of the time. “Michael has this period nailed down,” he says. “By that I mean he understands how these people felt, how they thought, their repressions, their sexuality.” In the end, of course, there’s rather more of the sexuality than of the repressions — as Natalie Dormer learnt at the earliest possible stage.

“I flew into New York to audition, and within half an hour of meeting Jonathan there were kisses and hands all over the place,” she says, laughing. “Well, it is our job…”

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