The Death of History

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In the past, historical drama provided just that…HISTORICAL drama. While certain liberties were taken in the service of drama, the historical facts were fundamentally sound. Historical dramas on television provided a wonderful medium for educating as well as entertaining. The scholarship and care behind historical miniseries such as Holocaust, Roots, Centennial, The Adams Chronicles and others were major moments in encouraging my love of history.

However, all that scholarship seems to be a thing of, dare I say it, the past in historical television. Facts that may confuse viewers, do not suit the views of the producers or even complicate casting are now changed at will. Will people accept these “edits” as the new truth, obscuring accuracy? Will people be taught fiction in place of fact? Look at this assessment of The Tudors and tell me what you think. Will the death of history be televised?


The following is reposted from the New York Times.

The Royal Life (Some Facts Altered)

FOR a guy playing Henry VIII, Jonathan Rhys Meyers was looking very skinny in his jeans, relaxing in a trailer on the Irish set of Showtime’s steamy period drama “The Tudors.” The series, which critics could take or leave but many viewers are eating up (the costumes! the sets! the sex scenes!), returns for its second season next Sunday.

“I have got absolutely no physical attributes in common with Henry VIII,” Mr. Rhys Meyers acknowledged as he made tea. “So everything has to be more about his energy, more about power, more about confidence.”

He had just filmed a scene set shortly before Henry and Anne Boleyn’s wedding, which history tells us took place when the king was in his early 40s. Mr. Rhys Meyers is 30. “Henry is 30,” too, this season, he said with a playful gleam in his eye. “He’s going to stay 30 for a while.”

He will also stay slim, although Mr. Rhys Meyers has been eating voraciously to put on a few royal pounds. “You don’t want to see a skinny guy in a big fat suit,” he said. “Unless it’s Eddie Murphy.”

The king’s physical appearance may be a minor point, really, when you consider the historical facts that “The Tudors” have played fast and loose with. And Michael Hirst, the show’s creator and writer, will defend every single decision.

“Showtime commissioned me to write an entertainment, a soap opera, and not history,” said Mr. Hirst, taking a break in an office at Ardmore Studios, near Dublin. “And we wanted people to watch it.”

It seems there have been practical moviemaking reasons for the misrepresentations. Take Henry’s sisters. In Season 1 Gabrielle Anwar played one, Princess Margaret, who marries an older man, the King of Spain, against her will. As any number of Internet history buffs will tell you, it was Henry’s other sister, Mary, who did that, and the older man was the King of France. So didn’t the writer do his research?

As it turns out, Mr. Hirst was well aware of both facts. But the list of characters already included a Princess Mary, Catherine of Aragon’s little daughter. “I didn’t want two Princess Marys on the call sheet,” he said, because it might have confused the crew. “ ‘Which one do you mean, Michael? Who do we dress?’ ”

As for Margaret/Mary’s husband, “The Tudors” had shown a French king in a different context in Season 1. Mr. Hirst feared that viewers might be confused, so he just chose another European country.

Liberties were also taken with the death of Thomas Wolsey, archbishop of York and the king’s right-hand man. According to historians Wolsey fell ill and died in Leicester in 1530 on his way back to London to face charges of treason. In Season 1 Wolsey committed suicide there, despite religious strictures against it.

Mr. Hirst defends his decision, contending that this might have been the way things really happened, and that Henry would have covered it up. Wolsey certainly had motive.

“He was going to come back to a show trial,” Mr. Hirst said. “And the best that he could get would have been a public beheading in front of all his enemies and a jubilant crowd.”

Mr. Hirst also wanted to give an acclaimed actor, Sam Neill, a powerful scene: “I didn’t want him to go out with a whimper. I wanted him to go out with a bang.”

History will continue to be altered in Season 2, beginning with Pope Paul III, played by Peter O’Toole. The pope who refused to let Henry divorce his first wife and excommunicated him was Paul’s predecessor, Clement VII. But last season Clement, played by Ian McElhinney, had a few short scenes.

Mr. Hirst worried that viewers might remember and react negatively to the casting change, so he just set up a papal succession. But in reality by the time Paul III was elected, in October 1534, Catherine was long gone, and Henry and Anne had been married roughly a year and a half.

Mr. Hirst decided that any confusion created by the changes is outweighed by the interest the series may inspire in the period and its figures. To that end, he wants to emphasize the similarity to the current era.

“I mean, who is Henry but a man who’s married to an older woman who falls in love with a younger one and wants to marry her?” Mr. Hirst asked. “We’ve seen that.”

Natalie Dormer, who plays Anne, found it easy to see her as a contemporary. She said there were strong likenesses between her character and a more recent British royal beauty: Diana, Princess of Wales.

“They were both incredibly image conscious,” said Ms. Dormer, 26, who was sitting in a dressing room, wearing a 16th-century-style ivory dress. “Anne Boleyn shook up the court in an aesthetic way.”

Just like Diana, who used glamour to court the news media, Ms. Dormer said, Anne made it clear that she was bringing “a certain je ne sais quoi, a sophistication” to the court. So far, the historical Anne and the Showtime Anne have not noticeably diverged. (She really did contract and survive what was known as the sweating sickness.) But anything can happen.

Anne will do historically accurate things, like marrying Henry, giving birth to a daughter (the future Elizabeth I), losing her husband to Jane Seymour and losing her head to the executioner. The season will also bring Thomas More’s fall from grace, which really occurred.

Just the other day Mr. Hirst swore that there would be no further historical adjustments this season, at least nothing significant that he could think of. Oh, except the plot to kill Anne Boleyn. He invented that to illustrate how much the English people hated her.

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