Bill Robison is co-author with Sue Parrill of The Tudors on Film and Television, maintains the associated interactive website www.tudorsonfilm.com, and is editing a volume of essays tentatively titled ‘The Tudors,’ Sex, Politics, and Power: History, Fiction, and Artistic License in Showtime’s Television Series. He is Professor of History and Head of the Department of History and Political Science at Southeastern Louisiana University.
The Tudors have excited filmmakers and moviegoers since the development of movie-making technology in the 1890s and have exercised a similar appeal on the small screen since televisions became widely available in the 1950s. Scholarship about Tudor films is a more recent phenomenon and hitherto has concentrated on ‘serious’ cinema; however, comedy is also worthy of study, for—like drama—it both shapes and reflects popular conceptions about Tudor history.
The majority of Tudor films focus on Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Portrayals of Henry typically reflect three interlinked influences: (1) Hans Holbein’s iconic portrait; (2) William Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s Falstaff-like character in The Famous Life of King Henry the Eight; and (3) Charles Laughton’s tragicomic portrayal in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). Henry’s outsized personality and scandalous career make him ideal for comedy, and he gets the lion’s share of funny roles. Films about Elizabeth often resort to the stereotypes of ‘Good Queen Bess,’ ‘Gloriana,’ and the ‘Virgin Queen,’ and while they may include genuine elements of political intrigue, religious conflict, war, and English Renaissance culture, filmmakers seldom can resist romanticizing her relationships with Robert Dudley, the Duke of Alençon, Walter Raleigh, and the Earl of Essex, or the exploits of adventurers like Francis Drake and John Hawkins. Her propensity for bawdy speech appeals to comedy writers, though some comic treatments play against her reputation as a chaste intellectual.
Some films are unintentionally funny: Catherine of Aragon driving Henry from a room with a cross as if he were a vampire in Cardinal Wolsey (1912); Sarah Bernhardt overacting in Les Amours de la reine Élisabeth (1912) ; the bizarre apparitions of the Spirit of Windsor Forest in Anne de Boleyn (1913); Eric Bana’s costuming in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), meant to emphasize his broad shoulders, but reminiscent of Carol Burnett’s Scarlet O’Hara; Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Henry wrestling with the taller Emmanuel Leconte’s Francis I in Showtime’s The Tudors (2007-10). In that series Sebastian Armesto evokes the wrong image as Charles V, and in Elizabeth the Virgin Queen (2005) the youthful cast (Anne-Marie Duff, Tom Hardy) induce incredulous grins rather than suspension of disbelief—in both cases my tampering with the soundtrack only enhances an already silly scenario.
Many serious Tudor films include intentional comic relief. Ernst Lubitsch’s silent masterpiece Anna Boleyn (1920) has a scene where a scantily clad girl comes out of a cake [at 11:30], and later the king leers and flirts in a comic manner with the coy Anne [at 15:40]. Emil Jannings’ portrayal of Henry influenced Laughton’s performance in Private Life, which firmly established Henry’s cinematic image as a jolly gluttonous lecher and has many humorous moments, including the king’s discourse on the decline of manners [ at 28:00], his quasi-adolescent courtship of Catherine Howard [at 38:00], and his awkward interaction with Anne of Cleves [at 45:30]. Anne of Cleves reappears in a comic role in The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970) [e.g., at 7:00] There is abundant dry humor in the BBC’s Elizabeth R (1971) and more risqué comedy with the cross-dressing Anjou in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998). Even A Man for All Seasons (1966) has lighter moments, including Cardinal Wolsey’s wryly cynical take on politics and Henry’s preening encounter with Thomas More’s daughter, Margaret.
However, the main focus here is on Tudor films that are deliberately funny. Regrettably, Good Queen Bess (1913), with music hall comedian George Robey singing a comic song, is lost, as is the Hysterical Histories episode about Raleigh (1925). In Old Bill Through the Ages (1924), Old Bill (Syd Walker) overeats while reading history and then dreams. Elizabeth sends him to fetch Shakespeare, who is surrounded by girls in tutus but dismisses them, saying ‘Get thee to a nunnery.’ Later, as he deliver’s Hamlet’s soliloquy, Bill throws a hand grenade at him, and he vanishes but reappears behind the throne, where he talks until everyone falls asleep.
The Looney Tunes cartoon, Book Revue (1946), set in a bookstore where the books come to life, features two Tudor characters . It offers viewers a visual pun with the clock-like ‘works’ of Shakespeare, sends up contemporary stars, and presents a multivalent joke with Henry VIII’s appearance. First, when the Indian maid begins a striptease, the oversexed king joins in the catcalls and wolf whistles. Second, his outraged mother is from The Aldrich Family, a radio sit-com that opened with Henry Aldrich’s mom calling ‘Hen-reee’ and the boy answering, ‘Coming, Mother!’ Third, the cartoon Henry is a caricature of Laughton, whose portrayal of the king in Private Life remained well known.
Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends (1959-64) had a recurring feature, Peabody’s Improbable History, in which Mr Peabody, a talking dog with genius-level intelligence, educates his pet boy Sherman about the past using the time-traveling WABAC machine. The stories are absurd, but knowing the actual history helps viewers get the jokes. There are three visits to the Tudor period: (1) Raleigh throws his jacket into the queen’s path not to cover a mud puddle but to obscure what he had just written in the dirt, i.e., ‘Elizabeth is a schnook’; (2) Shakespeare, who quarrels with Francis Bacon over authorship, has a play titled Romeo and Zelda, and when Peabody suggests ‘Juliet’ instead, he changes the name to Sam and Juliet (presaging the gag from Shakespeare in Love, in which the play is called Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter); and (3) the gluttonous Henry sends Peabody and Sherman on a quest to find jelly. The Canadian cartoon series, Max, the 2000-Year Old Mouse (1967) included episodes on ‘Elizabeth’ and ‘The Spanish Armada.’
Irreverent British comedies also had a go at the Tudors. Terry Jones and Michael Palin’s The Complete and Utter History of Britain (1969) had two Tudor episodes, ‘From Perkin Warbeck to Mary I’ and ‘The Great and Glorious Age of Elizabeth,’ and Henry VIII appears in the long-delayed sequel, The Nearly Complete and Utter History of Everything (2000). The star of It’s Tommy Cooper (1969-71) regularly dressed as Henry. Monty Python’s Flying Circus lampooned Elizabeth R (1971) with ‘Elizabeth L’ (1972), in which actors reverse the letters ‘L’ and ‘R’ with very silly results, e.g., a dispatch arrives from ‘Prymouth’ to inform ‘Erizabeth’ that the Spanish ‘Freet’ has been sighted. The Pythons’ ‘Tudor Job Agency’ purports to have supplied employees to Drake and Raleigh but turns out to be a pornographic bookshop.
Carry on Henry, or Mind My Chopper (1971)—rife with cleavage, testosterone, general bawdiness, and horrible puns—makes a hash of history, giving Henry extra wives, including the garlic-eating Marie of Normandy, and blowing up an anachronistic Guy Fawkes. Surprisingly, the sets and costumes in this burlesque are actually appropriate—Sid James’ Henry even wears a cloak that Richard Burton wore in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969). The latter film and other recent Henrician epics, A Man for All Seasons (1966) and The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), help explain why Carry On Henry worked at the time. The Carry On franchise moved to television in 1975, and in an episode called Orgy and Bess (1975), Elizabeth (Hattie Jacques), Drake (James), Lord Burleigh, Raleigh, and Philip of Spain indulge in one sexual innuendo after another, as well as the usual awful puns, e.g., at one point, as Drake urges his sailors to greater speed so that he can get to London and Elizabeth, a lookout in the crow’s nest cries ‘Avast behind,’ and the captain replies, ‘I know she has, but she’s still the queen.’
Tudor history suffers considerable abuse in the multiple Black Adder series. The premise of the first Black Adder (1983) is that Richard III defeated Henry Tudor at Bosworth, only to be slain accidentally and succeeded by ‘Richard IV’ (‘reigned’ 1485-98), Duke of York, younger son of Edward IV, and the younger of the two nephews whom Richard III had confined to the Tower of London in 1483. Remarkably, York—nine years old in 1483—is two years later a lusty warrior with a wife and two grown sons—Harry Prince of Wales and Edmund the Black Adder. Once again, knowing the real history that is being skewered here makes it even funnier. The initial episode has a faux-documentary introduction that accuses Henry VII of rewriting history to portray Richard III as ‘a deformed maniac who killed his nephews in the Tower,’ which is the same argument favored by Ricardian apologists like the novelist Josephine Tey. Prior to his death, Richard delivers butchered versions of speeches from the Shakespeare plays, Richard III and—more incongruously—Henry V. The Black Adder also sports an enormous and ridiculously phallic codpiece that obviously owes its inspiration to Henry VIII.
Black Adder II (1986) turns the traditional depiction of Elizabeth upside down. The premise is that Edmund Blackadder is a leading courtier and sometime paramour of an extremely ditzy Elizabeth, aka Queenie. Whereas Elizabeth was a learned and multi-talented intellectual, actress Miranda Richardson portrays Queenie as a complete bimbo, though she shares with the real queen two characteristics: a fondness for handsome courtiers and an inability to make up her mind. Once more, however, familiarity with Elizabeth’s reign enhances the humor, for the plots twist real historical situations into ludicrous lampoons. Because there are too many Catholics in prison, Blackadder becomes Lord High Executioner or, as he puts it, Minister of Religious Genocide. In other episodes he matches wits with an arrogant Raleigh, the moronic Lord Percy practices alchemy, and there are corrupt clerics and strict Puritans galore. A particular funny incident involves a Shakespeare-like case of mistaken identify, when the virile heterosexual Blackadder falls in love with a girl disguised as a boy named Bob. This scene works at a number of levels. Bob is a girl; Nursie, has a boy’s name (Bernard); Lord Melchet, played by the openly homosexual actor Stephen Fry, condemns Blackadder for his relationship with a ‘boy’; and it highlights in comic fashion that Elizabeth was intensely jealous of other women and at times suffered loneliness in order to remain single and thus the ‘Virgin Queen.’ In Blackadder: Back and Forth (1999), in turn a send-up of Doctor Who, a future Blackadder and Baldrick (Tony Robinson) travel in a TARDIS-like time machine to Elizabeth’s court, where Blackadder bumps into Shakespeare (Colin Firth), who is carrying a new play, gets him to sign the title page, steals it, then punches the playwright on behalf of ‘every schoolboy and schoolgirl for the next four hundred years,’ berates him for the misery he has caused, and kicks him ‘for Ken Branagh’s endless, uncut four-hour version of Hamlet’ [at 13:00].
Not surprisingly, NBC’s Saturday Night Live has gotten into the act. In ‘Anne Boleyn, Part XI: The Final Chapter’ (1987), an obvious satire of the BBC’s various mini-series, Anne (Candace Bergen) quizzes Norfolk (Phil Hartman) about what will happen to her head after her execution. ‘The Other Boleyn Girls’ (2008) featured no less than five Boleyn sisters competing for Henry’s affection, one of them a robustly male African-American actor in drag [ and scroll down].
Henry has cameos in I Dream of Jeannie (‘The Girl Who Never Had a Birthday, Part 2,’ 1966), where he flirts with a French maid, though Sigmund Freud—also present—excuses this as completely normal [at 16:15]; in Bewitched (‘How Not to Lose Your Head to Henry VIII,’ Parts 1 and 2, 1971), in which an evil witch sends Samantha back in time to the Henrician court, where the king puts the make on her before her mother Endora and husband Darrin rescue her; as a testament to the horrors of the pox in the unintentionally funny sex-ed film It Could Happen to You (1977); in U.F.O. (1993), in which the Starship Eve from Planet Clitoris captures sexist ‘heretics’—Casanova, Dracula, Genghis Khan, and Henry, all played by midgets—and comedian Chubby Brown; in Julia Jekyll and Harriet Hyde (1998), in which he visits the Rocket Academy; and in The Timekeepers of the Millennium (1999), where he stuffs himself while hanging out with animated characters Coggs and Sphinx. Anne Boleyn has an ignominious role in a teenage sexual fantasy in Kevin and Perry Go Large (2000), and ‘The Terrible Tudors’ are a regular feature in Horrible Histories (2001-03, 2009-present).
There were few serious Tudor films between the early 1970s and the late 1990s, but at the turn of the 21st century they were suddenly in vogue again. Interestingly, serious productions featuring Henry have abandoned the Holbein-Shakespeare-Laughton image. Granada’s Henry VIII (2003), starring Ray Winstone, is what director Pete Travis called ‘The Godfather in tights’; both versions of The Other Boleyn Girl make Henry a rather vapid soap opera character; and in Showtime’s The Tudors, Jonathan Rhys Meyers bears little resemblance to Henry physically or otherwise. But, the comic Henry remains very much in the traditional mold.
An oversexed, overweight cartoon Henry appears in an episode of The Simpsons called ‘Margical History Tour’ (2004), in which Marge narrates various stories from history, beginning with Henry’s marriages. Homer appears as Henry, Marge as Margarine of Aragon, Lisa as Princess Mary, Lindsey Naegle as Anne Boleyn, and Ned Flanders as Thomas More. Henry 8.0 (2009), a series of sketches on the BBC comedy website for the quinquicentennial of Henry’s accession, reinforces the traditional image despite a completely ahistorical setting in which the king (Brian Blessed) lives in the present-day suburbs with Catherine Parr, is addicted to the internet, conducts acrimonious exchanges with the Pope and the King of France on Facebook, watches sports on television, goes on vacation in a caravan, spies on the neighbors, and eats too much. Finally, Love Across Time (2010) features the unfortunate Henry on a talk show with all six wives (2010).
Aside from Blackadder, Horrible Histories, and an episode of Historyonics (2004) on ‘Mary Queen of Scots,’ Elizabeth has had fewer comic roles than her father in recent years, though she does appear in the gender-bending film Orlando (1992), played by drag queen Quentin Crisp. But she does appear in the most sublime and the most ridiculous of recent Tudor films, both of which concern Shakespeare. Neither is remotely accurate, yet they have received a very different reaction from critics and historians. The later of the two, Anonymous (2011), is not meant to be humorous—it takes itself very seriously—but is certainly ludicrous, resurrecting and taking to even more absurd lengths the theory that the 17th Earl of Oxford wrote the bard’s plays and poems. Critics and historians have been sharply and justifiably critical. By contrast, practically everyone loves Shakespeare in Love (1998), which is deliberately and delightfully hilarious. The story is almost completely made up, though Will Kempe’s comic performance before the queen is reasonably authentic. But it engages in very obvious self-mockery throughout, and there is a sense that the writers, director, actors, and audience are all in on the joke together. It assumes that the audience knows Shakespeare’s works and the social context in which they arose, and it uses that to make us laugh.
In conclusion, blazing Tudorism may do as much as more serious appropriation of the Tudors to reflect and reinforce popular notions about the Tudors, especially Henry VIII. Indeed, anyone who has lectured about history knows that students and other audiences are more likely to remember a point reinforced with a joke. One could even argue that while comic films about the Tudors do not reach the aesthetic heights of A Man for All Seasons or Anne of the Thousand Days, they are more consistently successful than serious films in engaging and entertaining viewers. To paraphrase Philip Henslowe’s most famous remark in Shakespeare in Love, the natural condition of making a serious film about the Tudors is often one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. Strangely enough, though, comic films almost all turn out well. How? I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
*Readers can get information at www.tudorsonfilm.com on where to find films discussed here but for which neither clips or online links are available.