Monday, 17 November 2008

Off With Her Head!

“I’m Henery The Eighth I Am, Henery The Eighth I Am I Am”. Well, actually I am no such thing and don’t pretend to be. Neither, for that matter, did Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits as he sang the preceding lyric back in the sixties. However, as happens every now and then Henry VIII and indeed all things Tudor seem to be capturing everybody’s imagination once more.

Historical fiction both in print and on the screen seem to be big business right now, and it’s no surprise that the period that seems to appeal most is that of the Tudors, in particular Henry and his daughter Elizabeth I. With the Showtime series about Henry, “The Tudors”, and last years blockbuster movie “Elizabeth – The Golden Age” , alongside a plethora of novels by Philippa Gregory and others it’s very easy to fall under the spell of this turbulent period in British history. In equal part glorious and bloody, the entire Tudor era is one that continues to fascinate audiences through the decades. With current events seeing the worlds battlefields influenced by religious matters it’s often quite timely to take a look back at a bygone age when matters of faith were also the cause of so much bloodshed.

Sadly despite the production values of “The Tudors” it does seem to be particularly “creative” in it’s relating of the story. Henry’s sister Margaret is ignored, and his sister Mary is renamed Margaret to avoid confusion with his daughter Mary. This is a shame as the stories of both sisters were actually quite fascinating and would have been great additions to the series. Cardinal Wolsey commits suicide even though this was not the case and countless other characters (or historical figures?) find their stories and the events around them tweaked and twisted. Henry himself is even portrayed as a young man when he would have actually been knocking on a bit. However if you take the show for what it is, historical romp, it’s really entertaining and if nothing else has the ability to inspire you to explore the real history for yourself.

Likewise the immensely readable novels of Philippa Gregory, which although presenting a skew-whiff version of events are always an entertaining read. More satisfying though would have to be the classic historical novels of Jean Plaidy that have been recently re-published which, after comparison with legitimate biographies, seem to present a closer interpretation to real events. Her “Murder Most Royal” is one of the best of the genre for my money.

So the screen and the bookshelf have been flooded with successful evocations of Henry VIII and his progeny. Strangely, despite countless popular straight plays the musical theatre has never really managed to turn the same subject matter into a hit. In fact “Camelot” aside – which of course is the stuff of legend not historical fact – I am hard pressed to think of many musicals which have dealt with British royalty at all. In fact the only show I can think off that dealt with Henry VIII was a spectacular flop!

Back in 1976 I am sure that hopes were high for “Rex” which opened at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre that April. With respected actor Nicol Williamson in the lead and music by Richard Rodgers “Rex” certainly had the credentials to be a hit. However, hit it wasn’t and lasted a mere 48 performances making it one of the biggest disappointments of Rodgers’ long and successful career. It’s said that the main reason for the show’s short life is probably down to the fact that Henry is such an unsympathetic character. I can kind of understand that, but to shoehorn 40 odd years of history into one evening of musical theatre must have been quite a feat too. Sadly, having listened to the score, I don’t think that “Rex” was Rodgers’ finest hour musically either. Aside from the curiosity of an early musical appearance by Glenn Close it doesn’t really have much to commend it. The one saving grace is the lovely song “Away From You” that Sarah Brightman covered back in the eighties. I think the true lesson to be learned is that some things just don’t lend themselves to musicalisation. It’s often said that some stories just don’t “sing”. Maybe the tale of Henry VIII is one of them.

So on this occasion I am not going to suggest you head to HMV and buy this or that Original Cast Album, but get thee to a nunnery – oops, bookshop and explore some of the many historical novels that are currently doing the rounds. Perhaps when it comes to musicalizing the Tudor’s we should look to that classic of British cinema that delighted 1970’s audiences in all of it’s inaccurate glory….”Carry On Henry”. Now that would be something to see!