Tudor coup -eh?

So, historical shagathon The Tudors continues to drag on, like Hollyoaks in doublet and hose. Indeed, much like the venerated Chester soap, all the main characters seem to be portrayed by actors of improbable levels of attractiveness. Still, series writer Michael Hirst claims the show is “85% historically accurate”, and I don’t know a great deal about this period, so who am I to judge? Maybe the young Henry VIII really was as sexy as Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

I’m betting he wasn’t as wooden though. While certainly easy on the eye, Rhys Meyers portrays our most bombastic monarch with all the range and subtlety of Keanu Reeves. It probably doesn’t help that they’ve surrounded him with people who really can act, like Jeremy Northam and Sam Neill. As Henry, he is driven mainly by lust. This provides the directors with an excuse to show him naked as often as possible, and the sex scenes are certainly a relief from watching him attempt to act as he falls disastrously (and unconvincingly) in love with Anne Boleyn.

Everyone else is shagging too. Henry’s friend Charles Brandon is busy knocking off the Duke of Buckingham’s daughter, then later the King’s own sister. Henry Cavill as Brandon is pretty enough himself, and seems to top Mr Rhys Meyers in the acting stakes. Elsewhere, Sir William Compton takes a break from looking remarkably like Chris Martin to woo court composer Thomas Tallis. “You are a lord of the court,” protests the pretty young Tallis. “What am I?” “A genius!” comes the cheesy response. That’s all right then, Sir William only wants him for his mind.

But it can’t all be shagging, this is historical drama! So away from the pretty young things, international intrigue is brewing. Henry allies with the French (signified by a semi-nude wrestling match with his cousin King Francis!), but they betray him. So it’s off to an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor, with his comically enhanced chin and even more comical accent. But he betrays the English too, forcing Henry back into an alliance with the French. Meanwhile, Henry’s stuck trying to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he can shag Anne Boleyn, but the Pope’s not keen. Luckily there’s this feller Martin Luther who’s proposing a new, non-Catholic church…

Being historical drama, The Tudors feels the need to educate its audience. There is, therefore, a ridiculous amount of clumsy expository dialogue, in which characters tell each other things they must logically already know, such as their own names. “And now my daughters shall meet the king,” declares Sir Thomas Boleyn. “Mary… and Anne Boleyn.” Perhaps they had forgotten their names.

Another problem with being based on real people is that many characters share the same name. In particular, there are a lot of Thomases. Thomases are pretty much oozing out of the woodwork at Hampton Court. Thomas More, Thomas Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Tallis… Thankfully, the characters’ habit of referring to each other by surname avoids any problem in this regard. Still, the introductions lead to some spectacularly clumsy dialogue. “Thomas… Tallis. And what do you do?” “I compose… a little.”

Of the more mature cast, Maria Doyle Kennedy is a standout as the wronged Catherine of Aragon, obviously desperately in love with Henry but unable to compete with his lust for just about anything in a skirt. She has, by seven episodes in, developed a trademark wounded look that’s surprisingly effective. Elsewhere, Sam Neill is marvellously slimy as the power-hungry Cardinal Wolsey (another Thomas), hamming it up as the melodramatic scripts demand. Jeremy Northam’s not half bad as Thomas More either, though hampered by some excruciating dialogue evidently designed to educate the audience as to who Thomas More actually was. “I read Machiavelli’s The Prince,” declares Henry to More. “Not as… utopian as your book Utopia.” In most other exchanges, everyone keeps reminding More that he’s a Humanist, just in case any of us forgot.

I may not know much about this period, but I do know More and Wolsey are both bound for nasty ends. Henry, of course, is just going to get fat, and something tells me the story will end long before he becomes that unphotogenic. Now that Sir William Compton’s died of “sweating sickness” (a real, mysterious epidemic, apparently), Thomas Tallis appears to have turned to the ladies. Unfortunately his first choice of groupie also dies of the sweats, leaving him with only her identical twin. It’s a hard life. The extremely pretty Joe Van Moyland is great as the introverted Tallis, though his inclusion has so far had sod all to do with any of the main storylines. Still, he’s nice to look at.

It’s obvious that The Tudors is attempting to emulate the success of the similarly glossy historical drama Rome. The thing is, Rome was quite well-written, whereas the writing in The Tudors is the pits. Also, Rome had the clever trick of weaving two fictional everymen through its historical events, thereby giving the audience an identification point and simultaneously contriving to show Ancient Rome from all class perspectives. All we get to see in The Tudors is Henry’s court, which hardly seems any less comfortable than modern life generally – although they’ve curiously omitted the little detail that Henry and his lords and ladies would presumably still have to crap out the window. It’s probably not sexy enough.

Rome also scored over The Tudors in not talking down to its audience. It was several episodes in before I realised that David Bamber was playing Cicero, primarily because no-one was given the clunky line “Marcus Tallius Cicero… How’s it going, mate?” The Tudors, in its constant stream of expository dialogue, is an example of historical drama writing at its worst.

And yet I keep watching. Why? Not sure really. There’s some pretty young men, and I am intrigued to see how the minutiae of history turns out. It’s worth checking out for some of the older cast too; especially Maria Doyle Kennedy, Sam Neill and Jeremy Northam. I just hope it gets as far as the Reformation (I suspect it will, just so we can see Henry finally get to shag Anne Boleyn). If nothing else, I’m looking forward to seeing just how wooden Jonathan Rhys Meyers can be while condemning Cardinal Wolsey to be executed…