Arts & Books

TV review: Henry VIII receives a BBC makeover

Damian Lewis, who plays Henry VIII, during the filming of BBC Two's Wolf Hall (Ed Miller)

Anne Boleyn in BBC Two’s Wolf Hall (Wednesdays, 9pm) is just a 16th-century Vicky Pollard – Little Britain takes on Reformation England. When she calls Thomas Cromwell to see her, she’s all like: “I is queen now, right, and I know that Thomas More has been talkin’ about me behind my back, callin’ me a dirty monkey or summat. Cut his head off or Henry won’t get no action tonight.”

Cromwell does what he’s told because he’s terrified that the chavvy Boleyns will have his head next. Or, worse, they might move in next door.

Wolf Hall is fun drama but bad, biased history. Consider the episode that dealt with the fate of Thomas More – hitherto presented as an eccentric bully who tortures Protestants for kicks. Then, all of a sudden, More decides to defy Henry and die for his faith. Preposterously, the drama suggests that his death is just desserts because he is also a snob. Watching the execution, Cromwell remembers being a serving boy and waving to a youthful More standing at an open window – and More slamming the window shut.

Whatever the meaning of this strange scene, the camera cuts away before the axe falls on More’s neck. For this has to be the cleanest vision of Tudor England ever put on film. There’s nary a leaf on a lawn, a crease in the linen, nor a wart on a face. Henry is far thinner than Holbein painted him – something that Damian Lewis tries to compensate for by walking around with his legs akimbo, giving the uneasy gait of a spayed cat. What does Anne see in him? “Well, he’s the king, innit?” she might answer.

Indeed, if the anti-Catholic Wolf Hall pulls off one ironic feat it is to remind us how cruel and silly absolutist monarchy was, and that only the Church had the authority, or the guts, to resist it. More did not die just because he was arrogant, but also because he was a man of sublime conscience who could no longer tolerate the vanity of Henry’s court. And that’s why he’s now a saint, innit?

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (20/2/15). Also in this week’s issue: John Charmley on how to respond to those who claim Catholicism is not compatible with British values, Mary Kenny glimpses the future of the family and Freddy Gray says we must beware the wristbands that are ruining our lives

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