Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Six Wives of Henry VIII: The Television Miniseries



Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, widowed. Three Catherines, Two Annes and a Plain Jane. These are two ways to remember the unmerry wives of Tudor, those six unfortunate women who found themselves as consorts to the lusty Henry VIII of England. The Six Wives of Henry VIII cover the tumultuous times of Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr as they struggle to navigate both the political intrigues of Court and the mental gymnastics of of their oft-married monarch.

Starting with Catherine of Aragon (Annette Crosby), we see how Henry VIII (Keith Mitchell) came to find himself with this cavalcade of Queens. Catherine of Aragon, loyal wife to Henry, is devastated then enraged to be dumped for pretty courtier Anne Boleyn (Dorothy Tutin). However, Mistress Anne finds life at the top is not all crowns and dances. "You will endure all, Madam. I rule here," he tells the woman described as "a proud shrew".

Anne's fall is mixed with her personal courage, making her worthy of respect. Queen Number Three Jane Seymour (Anne Stallybrass) has something of a fever dream as she lays dying, remembering her courtship and struggles with Henry and his villainous Chancellor Thomas Cromwell (Wolfe Morris). She disagrees on his dissolution of the monasteries, but while she cannot fight this she at least gives Henry the one thing he's wanted: a male heir. 

The German Princess Anne of Cleves (Elvi Hale) is wary of being Queen Number Four, but Cromwell needs that German alliance. Anne is appalled that the portly, vulgar "King's Messenger" is really the King. Henry for his part isn't too thrilled with Anne, but the wedding takes place. Anne, like Jane, is appalled on how religion is misused by the King and his ministers to torment the people. However, an unlikely bit of luck comes her way when the political winds shift, making the much-hoped German alliance unnecessary. Cromwell's fall is Anne's salvation, as she cleverly suggests an annulment and makes Henry think it's his idea.

Not so clever is Catherine Howard (Angela Pleasance), Queen Number Five. Niece of the powerful and power-hungry Duke of Norfolk (Patrick Troughton), the pretty but stupid and somewhat slutty girl catches the eye of the now very heavy and gangrened king. She attempts to be aroused by him but even he can't arouse himself. Cromwell's execution is soon followed by her own, her indiscretions in an effort to sire a male backfiring spectacularly on her. While her now-disgraced uncle survives with his head intact, he falls out of power altogether.

Finally, there's Catherine Parr, Queen Number Six. The twice-widowed Parr wants nothing to do with the much-married monarch but is pushed into it by ambitious Seymour relatives. She too, like Jane and Anne of Cleves, finds the religious tumult impossible, putting her own views against that of the King himself. It is only by mere luck and Henry's death that she is spared the fates of Anne Boleyn and her predecessor.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII takes the unique approach of featuring each wife in a separate episode both written and directed by a different group of writers and directors. In a more surprising turn, three episodes (Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr) along with one episode (Catherine of Aragon) were directed or written by women (Naomi Capon and Rosemary Anne Sisson respectively). In a time where women were not often given chances to work behind the camera, The Six Wives of Henry VIII gave a chance to offer something of the feminine perspective on the ultimate male chauvinist pig. 

This approach also allows a chance to see the various women not just as pawns in a game but as fully formed figures, with flaws as well as virtues. Of particular note is Tutin's Anne Boleyn. As she faces trial for high treason, adultery and incest, we see her private bravery and courage when she knows there is no hope of survival.

I think every one of the poor Mrs. Tudors did well in the miniseries. There's the foolishness of Pleasance's Catherine Howard, who despite being a bit of a tart you end up feeling sadness for her. Hale's Anne of Cleves showed a deftness as she handled Henry, a man she clearly does not love but who manages to outwit the mad king.

At the heart of the miniseries' success is Michell as Henry VIII. Proud, boastful, arrogant, and with a particular way of seeing the world as he wished it, by the end we feel sympathy for him too. His genuinely heartbreak at his impotence with Catherine Howard is a moving bit of acting. He can be wry at times, suggesting to a man that "if your morality won't let you take a mistress, commit bigamy". In all his virtues and faults: his arrogance, his besotted nature with his wives, his yearning for a son, Michell makes Henry a fully formed figure.

Other roles are equally well-acted, from Troughton's scheming Norfolk to Morris' repulsive Cromwell.

Despite having many hands at work, The Six Wives of Henry VIII has a strong coherence, if at times a bit too stage-bound and dry. Jane Seymour is the only time where I remember there being any location shooting. In fact, Jane Seymour is surprisingly dominated by outdoor scenes, where most of The Six Wives of Henry VIII is studio-bound. Sometimes this is to its detriment: when Catherine Parr and Henry got married, the set literally rattled. 

The miniseries also has very little editing, the camera flowing from one actor or group of actors to another, staged in a way that prevents cutting unless its to the next scene. Whether this puts people off or not depends on the viewer, but at times it does feel a bit dull.

Still, The Six Wives of Henry VIII is well-acted and written, giving a good primer to the many women who found themselves Queen of England under the larger-than-life King.   


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