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Six Wives of Henry VIII
This ambitious nine-hour BBC television mini-series THE SIX WIVES OF HENRY VIII debuted in 1970 to rave reviews, and was eventually... Read More
This ambitious nine-hour BBC television mini-series THE SIX WIVES OF HENRY VIII debuted in 1970 to rave reviews, and was eventually broadcast in 70 countries. Tracing the life and loves of the terrible and grandiose monarch, the series follows Henry from his days as an athletic 18-year-old, through his lusty, hotheaded prime, to his final days, bloated and infirm, at 56. Each of the six episodes revolves around one of Henry's many wives: the kind and loving Catherine of Aragon; Anne Boleyn, the dark-haired, tempestuous girl who led Henry to reject Catholicism and create the Anglican Church--and whom he had put to death; Jane Seymour, who died in childbirth; the unattractive Anne of Cleves; the unfaithful Katherine Howard, also sentenced to death; and Katherine Parr, more of a nurse than a wife, who assisted the old king in his final years. <br> <br> Kevin Michell, an unknown Australian actor discovered by Sir Laurence Olivier, played the role of Henry VIII to much acclaim, and Annette Crosbie won kud... Minimize
1 Review from Epinions.com
Aug 13, 2009
Still the gold standard to beat with Keith Michell in _Six Wives of Henry VIII_
Pros: Keith Michell is the only actor to really capture Henry VIII.
Cons: The costumes and sets are a bit dated, but it's still a knockout production.
The Bottom Line:
Still my favourite film depiction of Henry VIII and his wives.
Long ago, my love affair with history and books started off with watching a miniseries on television in the early 1970's. I was rather young, but very precocious in my reading habits, and I was fortunate to live in a household where nothing was forbidden. While I couldn't make much of this story at first, once I found the companion book -- it was Henry VIII and his Court by Neville Williams -- and the myriad of colour photos and clear text, I was hooked. So too was I hooked on the television drama, where the tumultuous marriages of King Henry VIII of England was played out in fabulous costumes, plenty of scenery chewing, and enough blood-chilling events to make anyone's heart skip a beat.
For a lot of Americans, it was also their first introduction to the high quality of the BBC productions from the United Kingdom. Presented originally on Sunday nights (and on reruns ever since), it was one of the first presentations of Masterpiece Theatre, where books were dramatized and shown, often developing a devoted following among their viewers.
In The Six Wives of Henry VIII, England's most married King has his reign played out against the backdrop of the six women he married, often with varying degrees of success. With Keith Michell playing the role of Great Harry himself, it was a vivid, usually accurate, look at a man who was a contradiction in his dealings with his wives, his courtiers, fellow monarchs, and eventually, history itself. He could be courteous and chivalrous with women, but also didn't have any qualms about imprisoning or executing them if they got in his way. Same thing with his courtiers and advisors -- several of the best that served him, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell and Cardinal Wolsey would both perish at Henry's hands. But Henry was also a patron of the arts, especially with music, and he was no mean musician himself, and transformed his court into a showpiece for Renaissance spectacle and display.
Each of the six wives is portrayed individually, with some overlapping, in one and a half hour episodes. While this does help with keeping each story straight, it does present a bit of a problem in that there was a wide discrepancy in the time that each wife was married to Henry VIII. This tends to give a distorted view of the overall reign, especially when it comes to Katherine of Aragon, who was married to Henry for nearly a quarter of a century, to Anne of Cleves, whose marriage was the shortest -- just six months.
Catherine of Aragon:
The story here begins with Catherine's (Annette Crosbie) arrival in England in 1502, to marry the eldest son of Henry VII, Arthur, the Prince of Wales. But despite a promising beginning, the marriage ends quickly with Arthur dying just months after the wedding. Catherine maintains strongly that the marriage was never consummated due to their youth and Arthur's ill health. But the new Prince of Wales, Henry, is a young, strong and handsome man when he becomes king in 1509, and he marries Catherine ? both for love, and the alliance that it will bring with Spain. And at first, it is glorious times for them both, shown in a lovely segue as the new king and queen dance together. But their only surviving child is a girl, Mary, and Henry needs a male son to continue the Tudor dynasty? Most intense scene in here is when Henry breaks to Catherine the news that their marriage is over, it shows a king that is truly unhappy and a wife that is devastated by the news. Another good set of images is the use of Catherine's embroidery to mark the passage of time, much as their earlier bliss was shown by the royal couple dancing together.
Dorothy Tutin plays Anne Boleyn, the dark haired daughter of a minor courtier; she has spent most of her childhood in the French court. Sophisticated, cultured, she is an exotic bird in Henry's court. She is also a lady-in-waiting to his queen, Catherine, where she first gains the notice of the king. At first, it seems to be an innocent flirtation, but very quickly it turns into much more -- for Anne will not yield to be the king's mistress, she intends to hold out to be his wife, and so denies him her sexual favours. For a man who has never heard the word 'no' in his life, it's an intoxicating lure, and for many years Anne leads him a merry dance, until Henry tires of waiting, and divorces his first wife Catherine of Aragon, and marries Anne. It's a move that isn't too popular with his people, and the power of being queen is too much for Anne to handle sensibly -- especially when her new husband starts to notice another lady-in-waiting, the demure and pious Jane Seymour...
Quickly on the heels of Anne Boleyn's trial for adultery and subsequent execution, Henry marries his third wife, Jane Seymour (Anne Stallybrass). Their courtship had mirrored that of Henry and Anne -- but where Anne was a dazzler, Jane is plain, countrified and quiet. She is praying that she will give Henry the son that he so craves, but religious dissention and a rebellion is sweeping the land, and poor Jane discovers that while Henry can be loving, anyone who dares to cross him is in danger. And once she becomes pregnant, her one salvation becomes the son she might be carrying -- but in sixteenth century England, being a queen isn't always protection against the perils of childbirth...
Anne of Cleves:
After Jane's death in giving him a son, Henry retreats into mourning, but his councilors are pressing him to marry again and beget a few more heirs for England. This time, the choice falls on a German princess from a backwater duchy. Anne of Cleves (Elvi Hale) isn't very cultured, dresses badly, and is hardly the woman that Henry wants -- so much so that he just can't get it up in the bedroom to make her his wife in reality as well as in name. And Anne, unable to speak any English, finds herself surrounded by conspiracy and one of her own maids-of-honour angling for the crown -- a pert pretty teenager by the name of Catherine Howard. How Anne managed to survive her marriage is one of the more interesting sequences in this episode.
One of the more interesting marriages is that of Catherine Howard (Angela Pleasance), a pretty, pleasing girl who was in her mid-teens when she was noticed by Henry VIII. Henry by now is aging, obese, and in bad health. Compared to the current wife, a dowdy German, Catherine is a young sweet thing, ripe for the picking, and he pursues her with grand presents, and an offer of marriage, calling her his 'Rose without a thorn.' But it turns out that is all a sham when Catherine -- whether out of true love or the urge to give Henry another son -- dallies with a young handsome courtier by the name of Tom Culpeper, with the connivance of one of her ladies, Lady Rochford. And like her cousin, Catherine Howard faces the headsman's axe unless she can convince the king to spare her life...
By this time, it would be thought that Henry has tired of marrying but he takes on a sixth wife, Catherine Parr (Rosalie Crutchley). Muchly married herself, Catherine becomes Henry's caretaker and nurse, trying to heal the breach between the king and his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, and being a loving mother to his young son, Edward. And despite his urge to keep living, Henry faces the end of his life, still determined to have his own way...
Overall, this is still the best of the various video and film presentations of Henry VIII's life and reign. Other series, especially the one developed by historian David Starkey, have come close, but none of them have really caught up the intense drama that was Henry's life. In terms of casting, choosing Australian born actor Keith Michell was a stroke of genius -- not only does he bear a very striking resemblance to Henry VIII, but he has the ability to turn from charming and loving to a great roaring lion of a man, determined to have his own way in everything -- whether it is obedience from a woman, or crushing the rebellious catholic church to get what he wants. This was also a role that won him an Emmy, as well as several other awards for outstanding acting. Two directors shared the work of the episodes between them, Naomi Capon and John Glenister, while six writers shared the six episodes. This helped to give each sequence a feel and voice of it's own, and helped to give each wife a very distinct personality.
While the production values are very much a product of the 1970's here, and it's clear that it has a sort of theatre stage feel to it, it still works. The art directors clearly tried to keep the costumes and sets as close to possible to what was actually shown in surviving portraits and etchings of the period, and it goes a long way in making this feel right. For the DVD release, the images were cleaned up, the sound improved, and close captioning were added.
The special features here is one thing that helped this set stand out -- not only is there a portrait gallery of the various characters, but also cast biographies and scene selection available. One surprise for me was another film tucked onto the bonus disc -- the BBC version of Philippa Gregory's novel, The Other Boleyn Girl -- which will be reviewed later.
There is very little here to offend anyone, and the only strong content is the indication of torture and execution but it is implied not graphically shown.
Presented on four discs, in a lovely keepcase. And if you can't get enough of watching Keith Michell, find a copy of the film that he made after this one for the BBC in 1972, also about Henry VIII, with a far better known cast to support him up. He also reprised his role of Henry VIII in 1996 in a production of The Prince and the Pauper.
Five stars overall, and still the best.
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