It’s an open secret that, despite being as avid a student of Tudor history as someone who isn’t actually in academia can claim to be, I kinda like The Tudors, meaning the Showtime series written by Michael Hirst. I freely admit that I like it despite its lack of historical accuracy. I have no illusions on that score, nor had any going in. Hirst is the same man who penned the scripts for Elizabeth, after all, so I already knew what I was getting into. Hirst makes no claims to be writing documentaries, or even docu-dramas. He’s writing dramas guided by historical events, people, and themes.
It’s on the thematic level that Hirst’s work shines best, in my opinion, and comes closest to accuracy, managing to cover a surprising range of issues that were so key to those years, especially the religious issues. It’s also what shows that Hirst actually does understand the period he’s writing about and knows exactly what he’s doing when he deviates from actual historical research, bends the timeline, conflates characters, or simply makes shit up because it fits the coherent narrative of a television series better than real history did (at least, in his opinion). Some people would probably say that makes it worse — that because he knows better, he should do a better job of being accurate — but I’m pretty much OK with it.
No, in the end, there are two broad categories of things about The Tudors that really bother me at all. They can best be summarized that the show is simultaneously too clean, and too dirty.
This is something that actually struck me most firmly only today, while watching S4E4. The specific trigger scene occurred as Henry and Katherine (Howard) are riding north on progress. They pass a field (undoubtedly one of many), and we see a shot of the peasants working that field, including a boy who hears the drums in the distance and runs to the road to see the procession, ultimately followed by some of his elders.
The problem with this scene is that the boy, and the other peasants, and for that matter all the people in the King’s retinue, including the King himself, are almost spotlessly clean.
This is patently absurd.
By modern, Western standards, the Renaissance was not an age of squeaky cleanness. Bathing on any sort of regular basis had been a common pastime for most of the nobility, and even some of the common citizenry, in the previous century but had, odd as it may sound, fallen out of fashion, although they did tend to wash their faces and hands regularly. Even if bathing were more common, the people actually working out in the fields would almost certainly be dirty and sweaty, their clothes marked and stained with the regularity of both conditions and the fact that laundry, as we think of it, was also a pretty uncommon occurrence. For that matter, their clothes would be in far worse repair, unless every single person in that particular manor happened to receive new clothes that week.
However, even if bathing were more common, the King and his retinue are far too clean given that they’re on a dusty, sometimes muddy road and have been for days, because, despite England not being a very large place, it still takes an awfully long time to get anywhere when your primary means of conveyance involves muscles and feet — your own or a horse’s. Yes, they’d be stopping regularly and yes, they’d make some effort to freshen themselves up, but 10 minutes on the road and they’d be dirty again, because everything we know about English roads in that era is that they were terrible.
But here they all are, clear-skinned, clean, with hair that looks freshly washed and blown-dry and clothes that look brand new.
The sad part is that everything else about the scene feels right. The king and queen would have been accompanied by a tremendous retinue, that would have included drummers or some other such, with heralds announcing “make way for the king” and so on — basically the equivalent of a motorcade, only much slower. People who could hear the ruckus (and, in a time when the air was not full of motor noise, it’s possible that people would have heard that something was up for quite a long ways away) would have come to see, because, really, how often do you get to see the king ride by when you live in the middle of nowhere in 16th Century England? The king might well have seen the boy, been taken with him, and ordered a coin thrown to him. That’s the sort of thing Renaissance princes did. One kid catching a single gold piece — even if it was just a shilling or something — would spread the news and soon the whole shire would know that their King was awesome and gave riches away for free.
Anyway, this is just one example. There are countless others in the series, since the only time anyone appears dirty is when it’s actually a plot point (e.g. a scene of Henry coming upon Katherine Howard and her ladies in waiting having a mud fight. No, I’m not kidding).
Anyone who knows me even slightly well knows that I am nobody’s definition of a prude. People have been calling me a dirty old man since I was 15. Also, I would not argue for one moment that there was not an awful lot of sex going on in Tudor times, as in Victorian times, as in any times whatsoever, because really, otherwise, none of us would be here reading this. Sex happens. A lot. Lots of people rather enjoy it. Marital fidelity amongst the noble classes was notoriously lacking–although Henry himself was, believe it or not, comparatively well behaved in this regard. Compared to Francis of France, Henry was the soul of marital sanctity.
Even so, I’ll stipulate that sex was everywhere, all the time.
And yet, I have to say it: there is too much sex in The Tudors.
And I’m not talking “love scenes”, either. While there are no money shots here, there is pretty much nothing left to the imagination as to what might be going on. Clothes come off, naked (and far too clean) bodies press together in full view of the camera, and continue for full-blown sex scenes. In short, we’re talking soft-core territory, here.
Now, if this happened a couple of times a season, just to remind us A] sex happened all the time and was nothing to be afraid of and B] this is Showtime and they can show us sex if they want to, I’d be OK with that. The problem is, this happens a couple of times an episode.
I’d also feel better about it, I think, if Mr Hirst confined his pairings to the ones we know about, or are at least rumoured — of which there really are plenty. But Henry VIII never actually had sex with Anne of Cleves, and certainly not after they were divorced, dammit.
I thought it was getting better for a while. After all, the show is primarily about Henry, and Henry definitely slowed down as he got older. As a result, we did get fewer gratuitous sex scenes.
But then, Henry met Katherine Howard, and from that point until at least S4E4 (which is as far as I’ve watched so far, but have no fear, I will be finishing), the show is back to being porntastic. The much-rumoured relationship between Sir Thomas Culpepper and Katherine is realized in all its smutty glory, with the two of them boinking like weasels several times in a 50 minute episode. To be fair, these scenes are usually portrayed in a way to drive home the point (and this much is at least historically accurate) that Henry was too troubled by actually having to govern (having been conned into chopping off Thomas Cromwell’s head), too often in pain from his injured leg, and really getting too old (although by modern standards he wasn’t all that old, really) to have much of a sexual appetite, while his silly teenage bride was in the full bloom of hormones and had (unknown to Henry) never exactly been a Good Girl. But there are still to many of them for my taste.
As you can probably tell from the ensuing paragraph, my real problem here is not at all that all this sex is somehow a part of the show’s inaccuracies. Quite the opposite. I just think that about 70% of the sex scenes are gratuitous (and certainly gratuitously graphic) and mainly meant to hold the attention of the Skinimax crowd and otherwise make the point that this is adult television.
So there you have it. The Tudors isn’t terrible, by any stretch. Even knowing the historical atrocities they’re committing, it’s fun to watch for the most part. But for some reason, these two areas just sort of jump out at me and take me out of the narrative.
And I can’t help wondering if maybe Michael Hirst is wrong; if maybe it would be possible to apply the same production values to an historical drama that was more accurate to actual events, and still get the ratings…