Sue Parrill and William B. Robison
The Tudors on Film and Television
(McFarland, 2013) 352pp. $75.00
A dense and challenging read, this book provides a focused and intense analysis of representations of Tudors in film and television that demonstrates a great deal of sensitivity both to historical accuracy as well as acting, writing, and production values. The authors are intensely critical of films that make up characters and situations, but they are also unstinting in praise of those works of excellence that they consider to be worthwhile for instruction. As a result, this book appears to be targeted at history teachers or researchers with a great interest in Tudor times, who take entertainment seriously as a source of much of the information that people have about history and who appreciate entertainment that is done well and with a concern for factual accuracy. In terms of its contents, this book has a short introduction about the history of the Tudor period, spends the vast majority of its length, well over 90%, giving analysis of films and television shows, providing details about their title, date of production, director, actors, studio, as well as detailed analysis of the plot, characters, and historicity of the production. After this there is a detailed chronology of the age of the Tudors, a bibliography, and a lengthy index.
The scope of this book is immense. To the best of the authors’ abilities, they have sought to provide information about every single movie (including shorts) or television episode or series that deals with Tudor times, ranging from the War of the Roses and the efforts of Henry and Jasper and Owen Tudor to the death of Elizabeth I. This search is not limited to English-language adaptations, but includes Spanish, German, Czech, and Russian portrayals of the Tudors. Nor is this film only interested in the Tudors themselves, but also in portrayals of William Shakespeare, and not only history but fictional work ranging from Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper to films like Orlando and television shows like the Simpsons and Rocky & Bullwinkle. For some of the films that have been uncovered, there is little information besides stubs, and these have been provided by the author along with the comment about the state of knowledge about that particular film or television show, and its likelihood of being lost if it was performed live and likely never filmed, as was the case during the early days of British and American television. The authors also focus heavily on popular portrayals of the Tudors, spending more than 40 pages discussing every episode of the recent Showtime series in vivid, even painful, detail, pointing out every imaginary character or invented episode portrayed by the series.
This is a book that appears to be designed more as a reference work, rather than as a book to be read from cover to cover. Even so, despite the fact that this is a challenging read, simply because of its density of information, it is immensely worthwhile as a critical guide from historians who take their entertainment very seriously, and the authors at times are able to write with immense wit and humor. For example, the authors say of Jean Simmons’ portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in Young Bess: “The choice of Jean Simmons to play Elizabeth is problematic. Her face and stature are very unlike the appearance of Elizabeth in portraits and in period descriptions. Cate Blanchett, who played young Elizabeth in Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998), is a far better fit. It is also unlikely that the historical teenaged Elizabeth would have behaved in such a hoydenish way—tossing her head, running, and sulking. Jean Simmons acts much as an American teenager in the twentieth century would act, and Elizabeth would probably have lost her head if she had mouthed off to King Henry as her character did on The Great Harry.” (302)
Yet, even though the book has a great deal of criticism to make of various portrayals, which contain anachronisms, major errors in chronology, the absence of important historical figures and the invention of other characters out of whole cloth, the authors are unstinting in praise when there is a portrayal of the Tudors as being worthy of use to instruct students in history. For example, their praise of the obscure BBC series The Shadow of the Tower is remarkable: “All this notwithstanding, the series is well worth watching. The costumes are accurate save for the 1970s hair and wigs on the men, and the sets are authentic. Most remarkable, though, is that it is an extremely accurate portrayal of Henry’s reign. There is little time compression, and there are very few fictitious characters and situations. Because Henry VII’s is era is the least well-documented in the Tudor period, some invention of dialogue and dramatic business is unavoidable. But, as is further detailed in the entries on the individual episodes, the series follows the sources and is the very antithesis of the howler-filled narrative of The Tudors and of many modern films about Henry VIII and Elizabeth. Indeed, it is probably the most accurate of all the fictional films and television shows covered in this book. Given its historicity and because it is good television drama as well, it deserves to be widely viewed and has enormous potential as a teaching tool.” (201) This is a book that gives plenty of criticism where it is deserved, but equally importantly it gives praise where it is deserved as well, allowing a reader who cares both about historical accuracy as well as acting, writing, and production values a valuable resource in choosing which Tudor adaptations to watch and to share with others, especially students, in the interests of both learning and teaching the history of this period.
Not only is this book clearly the result of extensive, even heroic historical research and viewing effort and searching critical analysis, but the authors seek to add to the materials of the book with online supplements as more adaptations are found, making sure that this is one book that not only is worth checking out of the library or taking off of one’s shelf to read as a historical and film criticism reference work of immense worth, but also that it is able to stay up-to-date as more adaptations are created so that readers do not have to fear this work become outdated and obsolete. Credit for this belongs to the authors, who have done their homework about Tudor times and the way has been portrayed in over a century of visual media, and whose bibliography is full of worthwhile books for those interested in reading more about Tudor history, as well as to the publisher for continued commitment to keeping this work fresh and up-to-date. For those with personal or professional interests in Tudor history as it is portrayed in film and television, this book is an essential read, with a wealth of information and detail that will likely be read and referenced by many historians, teachers, and film critics in the years to come.