‘Sexy’ Tudors make screen return
By Emma Jones
BBC News, August 1, 2008
Emmy-winning series The Tudors is back for a second series on BBC Two, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the young King Henry VIII.
The series chronicles the Tudors’ reign in the style of glossy 1980s soap Dynasty – a glamorous take on the family which ruled England and Wales from 1485-1603.
Rhys Meyers, 31, plays one of history’s most charismatic yet despotic monarchs.
The Irish-born actor insists producers took a risk making a drama set in the Tudor era.
“TV shows which tend to be successful are to do with contemporary life, and this is so far removed from life as we know it,” he says.
“Physically, I’m nothing like the pictures of Henry and therein lies the boldness. We needed to do something to get a contemporary audience watching, to draw in people in their 20s and 30s.”
In order to achieve just that, there have been some complaints from TV critics that the series has been “sexed-up” in every sense of the phrase.
There is a lot of semi-nudity – but it is shown to a post-watershed audience.
According to Rhys Meyers, however, its detractors have failed to note an inescapable fact of history – Henry had six wives, and many mistresses.
“And Elizabeth Taylor had eight husbands and that’s 20th Century Hollywood, not just 16th Century England. Sometimes I think people are just prudish.”
If royalty was the equivalent of celebrity in that age, Rhys Meyers knows all about the psychology and pressure of that. He tries to relate his character to the modern day.
“Henry was never supposed to become King,” he explains. “He was the spare, he was Prince Harry now, if you like.
“His elder brother Arthur, our William – he was supposed to be King, but he died. Henry was 14. Nowadays we’d never expect someone of that age to deal with that.”
Written by the scholarly Michael Hirst – who also wrote Elizabeth, starring Cate Blanchett – The Tudors’ lavish production budget attracted names like Peter O’Toole. He plays the Pope who is asked to grant the King a divorce.
The Tudors has gained a lot of fans in North America – one wrote in to a newspaper to ask what happens to Anne Boleyn – but Rhys Meyers warns that people should not look to it for a history lesson, as it focuses on personalities, not politics.
I have to draw on his personality and I had to research deeply into the flaws of the man
Jonathan Rhys Meyers
“It might not appeal to an older, more critical audience. We have to condense everything by about ten years,” says Rhys Meyers.
“For example, the whole Anne Boleyn thing happened when Henry was into his 30s – we set it in his 20s. Otherwise we’d end up with about 50 hours of television that nobody would want to watch.”
It would also be impossible to make the slight Rhys Meyers appear like the ruddy, overweight King of Holbein’s later famous portraits.
“With Henry, I don’t look at any pictures of him,” he says. “I have to draw on his personality and I had to research deeply into the flaws of the man.”
The Tudor monarchs, which include Elizabeth I, have already gained younger fans from films like Elizabeth and The Other Boleyn Girl.
Rhys Meyers insists Henry VIII is equally fascinating, but he certainly doesn’t play him as England’s stereotypical merry monarch chewing on a chicken leg.
“Do I see Henry as a good guy?” he asks. “I don’t play him as a good man. I think he was a smart man, and a charismatic one, but his bad deeds outweigh his good ones.
“He gave his country a lot of pain with the Reformation. People had to choose between their head and their hearts, his way or the Pope’s way, and God help them if they chose the Pope’s way.”
The second series starts with the beginnings of the Church’s split with Rome as Henry tries to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry his then mistress, Anne Boleyn.
“The simple fact is that Henry wanted a younger, more beautiful wife, who could bear him sons and this is a man who was used to getting everything he wanted.
“Very few people in the world, apart from a few dictators, know what that feels like these days. Certainly no-one in Britain has held that kind of power for centuries.”
The Tudors seems to have achieved what it set out to – to make history accessible and sexy to a younger generation.
A third season is already under way in the US and a fourth has been commissioned, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers committed to playing Henry.
Certainly there is plenty of scope for this one to run on – there are at least four more wives to get through yet.