Tag Archives: Michael Hirst

Susan’s Interview with Margaret George, author of The Memoirs of Cleopatra and The Autobiography of Henry VIII

We all know that any work of imagination has to go beyond the recorded facts.  I take that as a given.  But do you think that there is a point at which historical fiction can go too far?  If so, how would you describe the boundaries of what is acceptable and not? Or don’t you think there can be a hard and fast rule?  And if not, do you think “anything goes”?  What historical standards do you hold yourself to?  

Since my goal is to resurrect the person (as much as humanly possible, so they would be pleased and say, “hey, that’s just the way it was!”) that means I am a stickler for accuracy and don’t have much truck with the idea that ‘history is what you make it’—‘well, who can say what really happened’ etc.  I ran into a lot of that with Cleopatra, where people said that as long as there was one iota of ‘doubt’ (usually meaning their own doubt, not experts’ doubts) then the gate was wide open to claiming just about anything.  (“Well, how do we know she was a Ptolemy?”)  This can reach ridiculous lengths and come to ridiculous conclusions.  Then they hide behind, “Well, it’s fiction!”

I’ve always felt those people give a bad name to the rest of us.  It’s too bad that ‘historical fiction’ as a blanket term isn’t very defined or precise. It covers such a spectrum, all the way from the absolute accuracy crowd (which tends to be kind of boring) to the most outlandish things.  Some perpetrators shall go unnamed!
However, people often say, why not write a nonfiction if you are that picky? without realizing they are different art forms.  For one thing, nonfiction allows for (even demands) multiple interpretations, whereas a drama has to select one.  Also, a drama can create dialogue and set scenes and fill in missing pieces.  In short, it’s more fun and also can reveal truth in its own way.  Nonfiction does not have a monopoly on truth.
Can you tell us something about your inspiration for The Autobiography of Henry VIII?

When I was visiting Hampton Court in 1970 and heard the story of Catherine Howard and her shrieking ghost in the Haunted Gallery, I wondered why Anne Boleyn is so famous and Catherine Howard an unknown, when their stories were so similar.  They were cousins and even looked alike, and met the same end.  It struck me that maybe Henry was like Jimmy Stewart in “Vertigo”, where he was responsible for the death of his love, and then tried to re-create her in someone else and have it turn out differently, only it didn’t.  So from that idea I knew I was pursuing a ‘psycho-biography’ of Henry VIII.

Incidentally, the Catherine Howard section of “The Autobiography of Henry VIII” is still my favorite and the one I enjoyed writing the most.  No one else seems to choose it, though, when asked for their favorite part.
In an interview with me, Michael Hirst complained that while people were constantly criticizing “The Tudors” for its departures from historical record, “Wolf Hall” got nothing but praise for its almost entirely imaginative universe.  Care to comment on that?

 Well, I haven’t read “Wolf Hall” yet, but I did see “The Tudors.”  I doubt that Hilary Mantel twisted and trampled on history as wantonly as Michael Hirst did, who either didn’t know the facts or just didn’t care.  He made religious and strait-laced (in real life) women into promiscuous babes (like Edward Seymour’s wife), invented more promiscuous babes whenever it suited him, and let’s just say, you would learn as much about Tudor history from “The Tudors” as you would about prehistoric man from “The Flintstones.” (Not that they aren’t entertaining—but that isn’t the question here.)  From what I understand, “Wolf Hall” is more the psychological portrait of Thomas Cromwell and what it was like to serve Henry VIII.  In that sense it is an ‘imaginative universe.’  But an honest one.

Philippa Gregory, in various interviews and Q and A sessions, has claimed that everything she writes is based on “historical probability.” While she admits to “filling in the gaps”–which seems exactly appropriate for a fiction writer—many would argue that she does much more than this, that she ignores the historical record to create an alternative narrative, which she then passes off as grounded in history.  She seems to want to claim for herself both the status of historian and the prerogatives of a fiction writer.  Care to comment?  

Philippa Gregory is trained as a professional historian but I’ve noticed that people who have credentials as ‘real’ historians seem to enjoy the freedom of fiction after the strictures of nonfiction, for example, Carrolly Erickson and Alison Weir.  Maybe they feel it’s OK to let loose?  And have some fun? So perhaps their definition of fiction has more latitude than fuddy-duddies like me allow themselves.

I noticed that in the earliest novels, authors often had a section devoted to outlining for readers what was created and what is factual in their works.  We tend not to do that any more.  Why not?  And what do you think of such a practice?

I think it’s very important and I have that in all my books.  Originally I suggested it for “The Autobiography of Henry VIII” and was told that fiction didn’t have bibliographies or afterwords, but by the time the paperback came out the publisher changed its mind.  Readers seem to really want that—they need to know whether this or that scene really happened, or where certain information came from.  I think more and more writers are asking that it be included.

I love the titles of your work because in themselves they “announce” that they are works of fiction.  That is, we know that Henry VIII didn’t write an autobiography and Cleopatra didn’t leave any memoirs.  It seems to me that this firmly establishes that what you are doing is from a  fictional point of view.  Is this something that you deliberately want to make clear to readers?  In our “post-Oliver Stone, post-O.J. Trial” era, in which (it seems to me), viewers/readers no longer have much ability to distinguish between different kinds of narratives, do you think the fact/fiction issue has become more problematic?  

Well…I did once overhear someone saying, “This is just a lie!  Henry VIII never wrote an autobiography!”  But, aside from such readers, I think most people can figure it out.  My editor thought I should always have the name of the character in the title so it would be absolutely clear who the book was about.  That got harder and harder—after using up ‘memoirs’ and ‘autobiography’ I had to resort to just the names.  (Although I would have loved ‘The confessions of….’ but the publisher wouldn’t let me.)

And I absolutely agree—people don’t seem to distinguish between fiction and reality anymore.  For one thing, the ‘reality’ TV shows aren’t real at all, but staged, yet people believe them.  And the Oliver Stone stuff…!  Apparently most people get most of their history from TV and movies now and have no idea what happened in real life.  For example, everyone is certain (if they’ve heard of her at all) that Livia poisoned lots of people in ancient Rome, because of “I, Claudius.”  But that was Robert Graves’ fiction and historians say that never happened.  But the script and the performance were so compelling they were utterly convincing.

Some defenders of Philippa Gregory have argued that “all history is interpretation anyway.”  This was said, for example, by Natalie Portman, who played Anne in “the Other Boleyn Girl.”  Neither she nor Scarlet Johansen nor Eric Bana did much research beyond reading PG’s novel, and seemed to think that getting the costuming and accents right was sufficient, because “all you got from historians was competing views, anyway.”  Care to comment?

I think they are all a bunch of ignoramuses (in spite of Natalie’s Harvard degree).  Lazy.  Un-intellectually curious.  (Now how’s that for a value judgment?)  As for hiding behind such a dumb and dismissive statement as ‘all you got from historians was competing views, anyway’, I wonder if they carry that philosophy over into their medical treatments?  (“What the heck, they can’t decide how many cigarettes it takes to cause lung cancer, so I’ll just ignore it all!”) Frankly, they all gave dismal performances in TOBG because they were all miscast (Eric Bana as Henry??) except for Scarlett, who acted somnolent through the whole thing even though from a distance she kind of looked like Mary Boleyn. And sorry, Natalie just isn’t a vixen—not convincing as someone who could topple a throne.  Maybe if they’d studied their history a little they could have done a better job.


Filed under Interviews with Michael Hirst, Natalie Dormer, and other modern personalities

More of Susan’s Interview with Michael Hirst, Writer of The Tudors

Intellectual property of Susan Bordo.  Do not quote or cite without attribution to The Creation of Anne Boleyn FB page (www.facebook.com/creationofanneboleyn)

SB = Susan Bordo

MH= Michael Hirst


We’ve talked about the fact that you are not doing history. In other interviews you’ve said “art is different from life, it has to have form”.  I agree completely. But I’m wondering, though, if you think that there’s a point at which a line gets crossed.  I’m thinking here in particular of “The Other Boleyn Girl,” which many of my students believe is true.


I just think you have to judge the results. Philippa Gregory has no historical sensibility at all. Her characters are all middle class people wandering into a historical situation and behaving in a very modern middle class way as a result.


The rivalry between Mary and Anne, for example?


Yes, yes, she just invented that or she didn’t know. With good fiction, you actually do understand history and you understand two things.  One is that people are completely different from us and at the same time they are completely the same. In other words, they believe things that seem extraordinary to us. But you understand their existence and you can touch them.  You don’t have to make this huge phony effort to make Anne Boleyn seem like someone in the next dorm of your university, you know.  She was of her time. Her sensibility would not have been a contemporary sensibility. But behind that she is real, behind that she is human.


I do wonder, though, with respect to The Tudors, whether you didn’t try to appeal to viewers yourself, by making Anne, in the first season, all about sex. I think that is part of what led some people to think “oh, here we have it again, Anne the slut.” Would you do that differently now or do you still stand by those choices?


Well, it goes back slightly to the initial situation we were in.  When Showtime commissioned the series they were really taking a giant leap because they believed there was no ready market for anything like that, so we had to push the boundary there.  It wasn’t until the second season when we had a market established that I could then settle down a little more and discuss serious things.  But the sex stuff wasn’t entirely cynical, because I did want to show, unlike high-school history, that there was a lot of sex at the time.  All the courts of Europe were run by people in their teens and twenties…that’s why they were so crazy.  We have this image now that the court is always middle aged, but it wasn’t true.  You know, Henry was 18 when he became King, and I thought it was ridiculous that people were telling me he was really rather prudish and there was no sex because there was no heating in the palaces…


Have they never been on a camping trip?


So, I’m not entirely sorry but I understand your point and its quite true.  People were able to dismiss it because they saw it only as a romp.  But, it wasn’t. It was a way of gaining an audience for something that wouldn’t otherwise have been watched and once I had my audience I could develop more complicated issues…


I understand what you mean.  And I think that you succeeded in that.  But some choices did puzzle me.  One, for example, was the decision not to have Henry’s body change.  That, and the minimal aging that Jonathan Rhys-Meyers did.  I mean he limped, sure, but he still looked like a pretty hot, sexy guy by the end of the series.  How did that come about?


Well the main thing was that Johnny actually has a small head and if you put a big body suit on him he would have looked ridiculous and I never wanted to go down the line of the slightly comical Henry VIII.  The moment people start laughing at him he can’t be a monster, and I’m more interested in the dangerous guy who is killing his wives. I do think, though, that he was pretty effectively degraded because on the very last show when he appears as a young man again there has been a significant change in him and, historically speaking, the real Henry VIII didn’t become monstrously fat until the last five years of his life.  The other thing is, we simply couldn’t have got Johnny to do it.  Johnny would not have allowed us to make him grotesque.

But I’m not saying this is the real Henry VIII.  This is my Henry VIII.  In fact, I wrote the scene when he commissioned Holbein to paint him as a majestic figure because I wanted to make the point that when we see historical figures, a lot of it is propaganda and how they wanted to be seen.  That picture of Henry was essentially a piece of propaganda…


I agree about the Holbein portrait, but I think a slim, older Henry is wrong. I can see, though, why it would have been difficult to do that with Rhys-Meyers.  For me, one of the most successful Henrys, both in terms of acting and physicality, was Robert Shaw, in “A Man for All Seasons.” He had the kind of heft that can turn to obesity in old age, whereas I think it would have been hard to have an athletic and slim guy like Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, even if he had allowed it, seem to develop that.


In any case, the great shocking thing for many people was to show Henry VIII as young and fit.  That was a truth that a lot of people didn’t want to recognize.


To go back to the difference between history and fiction, and how good fiction, whatever its inventions, stays true to the historical context, do you think Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” falls into that category?


Well, I think it’s wonderful.  But, what amuses me is that The Tudors was often accused of being historically inaccurate, whereas I tried my best to make it as accurate within obvious limitations as possible and I used as many real quotes and recorded conversations as possible.  But Wolf Hall is completely made up.  It’s complete fiction. But nobody says that. They all say “what a wonderful book, what insights it brings to the Tudors…” Isn’t that bizarre?


A good point.  I found it ingenious and fascinating but I was disturbed by the same old mythology in the portrait of Anne Boleyn.  Mantel is a wonderful writer, but when it comes to Anne, it’s the same old schemer, only re-cycled.


Exactly, it’s trying to redeem Cromwell at the expense of damning Anne yet again.


Writer of The Tudors, Michael Hirst


Filed under Anne and Gender, Interviews with Michael Hirst, Natalie Dormer, and other modern personalities

The Tudors’ Anne: A Magic Collaboration Between Writer and Actress

 When I spoke with Michael Hirst in March 2011, he admitted that when he wrote the first season of The Tudors, he wasn’t all that interested in Anne Boleyn.  “I didn’t even know if we’d be picked up for a second season at that point, and Anne was one of many people swimming in the ether. Wolsey and More—and of course Henry–were the more dominant figures.” His ultimate goal was to introduce television viewers to the tumultuous events behind the English Reformation.  But he knew that history-as-entertainment was “a giant leap” for most viewers, and wasn’t afraid to make use of the sexier side of the story.  He picked Natalie Dormer for the role of Anne largely because of the chemistry between her and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, slated to play Henry. His choice ultimately led him to a reconsideration of Anne, her role in history, and his hopes for the legacy of the series.

When I met with Natalie Dormer in June 2010, we talked about many things.  I was extremely lucky to meet Natalie after her contract with Showtime was over, and she felt free to cease acting as a spokesperson for the show, and to speak her mind.  For over an hour and half, we shared our love of Anne and her story, lamented how it had been misrepresented both in Anne’s time and our own, discussed Tudor history, and reflected on the struggle of Anne, women actors, and young women today to escape the limitations and expectations placed on them.  She admitted that she often felt “compromised” by the way Anne’s character was written for the first season.

“I lost so many hours of sleep, and actually shed tears during my portrayal of her, trying to inject historical truth into the script, trying to do right by this woman that I had read so much about. It was a constant struggle, because the original script had that tendency to polarize women into saint and whore. It wasn’t deliberate, but it was there. I tried to fight that wherever I could, and because Michael Hirst and I were friends, and he had respect for my knowledge of history, I did manage to accomplish a bit. It was both inspiring and depressing when I got letters from young women, saying that it was so fascinating to watch me play a two-dimensional characterization of such a strong, powerful, clever and yet beautiful woman.  The fact that it was so unusual for them to have an inspiring portrait of a spirited, strong, young woman–that’s devastating to me. But young women, it seems, picked up on my efforts, and that is a massive complement.  And says a lot about the intelligence of that audience. Young girls struggling to find their identity, find their place, in this supposedly post-feminist era understood what I was doing”.

But not everyone responded in such a gratifying way.  Hirst and I talked at length about the long legacy of negative stereotypes of Anne, and the tendency of fiction-writers and some historians to simply re-cycle them.   Some critics, Hirst reported, dismissed The Tudors’ Anne as “your typically manipulative, scheming bitch.  That surprised me because I hadn’t written it that way—I didn’t think Anne was a manipulative bitch, but a lively, complex woman–but they couldn’t get out of this system of thought we’ve talked about.  Some of this criticism hurt Natalie very much.”

In my interview with her, Natalie recalled that disappointment, and spoke passionately about her desire that audiences, when the series got to Anne’s fall, would empathize with her:

It happened very shortly after she miscarried, remember. To miscarry is traumatic for any woman, even in this day and age.  And to be in that physical and mental state, having just miscarried, and be incarcerated in the Tower! If only she’d had that child! It’s horrific to confront how much transpired because of terrible timing, and how different it could have been.  It’s one of the most dramatic “ifs” of history. And it’s why it’s such a compelling, sympathetic story.  But I knew by the time we’d finished the first season that we hadn’t achieved it. That audiences would have no sympathy for her, because the way she’d been written, she would be regarded as the other woman, the third wheel, that femme fatale, that bitch.  Who had it coming to her. “ 

During a dinner with Michael Hirst, who was still writing the second season, she shared her frustration and begged him “to do it right in the second half. We were good friendsHe listened to me because he knew I knew my history.  And you know, he’s a brilliant man.  So he listened. And I remember saying to him: `Throw everything you’ve got at me.  Promise me you’ll do that. I can do it.  The politics, the religion, the personal stuff, throw everything you’ve got at me.  I can take it.’”

Hirst took her by her word, and the result was a major change in the Anne Boleyn of the second season. Still sexy, but brainy, politically engaged and astute, a loving mother, and a committed reformist. No longer was Anne simply a character “in the ether.” Rehabilitating her image became part of his motivation in writing the script: “I wanted to show that she was a human being, a young woman placed in a really difficult and awful situation, manipulated by her father, the king, and circumstances, but that she was also feisty and interesting and had a point of view and tried to use her powers to advance what she believed in. And I wanted people to live with her, to live through her. To see her.”

The execution scene was especially important to Natalie: “By the end of the season, when I’m standing on that scaffold,” she told Michael, “I hope you write it the way it should be.  And I want the effect of that scene to remain with viewers for the length of the series. I want the audience to be standing with her on that scaffold.  I want those who have judged her harshly to change their allegiance so they actually love her and empathize with her.”  The experience of actually filming the scene, for the actress, was “incredibly harrowing.  As I was saying the lines, I got the feeling I was saying good-bye to a character.  And of course, there was my tremendous sympathy for the historical figure of Anne.   I was a real crucible of emotions for those few days. And when it was over I grieved for her.”

Hirst, too, recalls the heightened emotions of shooting that scene: “That was an amazing day.  Extraordinary day. After, I went in to congratulate her.  She was weeping and saying, `She’s with me Michael.  She’s with me.’” And with thousands of fans, who still write Natalie letters, describing the impact that the scene had on them.

As you watch it now—probably not for the first time—I hope it will resonate for you, not only as the powerful, wrenching end of Anne’s life, but as the artistic culmination of a real-life relationship between another brave, challenging woman and a man who, unlike Henry, was willing to listen.

Natalie Dormer portraying Anne at her execution in The Tudors.

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Filed under Anne and Gender, Interviews with Michael Hirst, Natalie Dormer, and other modern personalities

“He killed off the best part of himself” – Michael Hirst on Anne Boleyn

Michael Hirst, on the “psychological crisis” that led to Anne’s execution,and how it altered Henry:

He had attacked the church on the basis of a love affair, largely.  And he felt sure of what he was doing at the time, and Anne had mistaken promised him a son. After she’d given him a daughter and had the miscarriages, it began to seem to him as though he’d gone horribly wrong.  He was plunged back into reality, which is messy and not perfect. And I think that as he confronted the huge seriousness of it, he began to be screwed up about what he’d done, and began to think in weird ways, that she was a witch and so forth.  This of course, shows how juvenile he still was.  At the same time what it revealed was this absolutely ruthless streak which his father, too, had possessed. So he somehow reconciled his psychological issues and persuaded himself:”oh well, hey ho, I’m the king, I can do what I like.” And went off merrily to another wife.  He did have a psychological tussle with himself, he did have a crisis.  And he came out of that crisis as a much worse person.  He killed off the best part of himself. Something profound happened, and as a result it led to him becoming a complete tyrant and monster.

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