When Michael Hirst – creator, writer and executive producer of The Tudors – first showed the pilot for the series to the US network Showtime, he found himself involved in a conference call. “Michael, we only have one question. Is any of this true?”
Some, of course, might say no, not really. Last year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival gave David Starkey the opportunity to turn a memorable phrase when he inveighed against the “randomised arrogance of ignorance” displayed. But Hirst robustly disagrees.
“Taken as a whole it’s remarkably truthful – I would say 85 per cent accurate. But it is drama, not history.” The costumes (one of Starkey’s criticisms) are indeed those of some years later – “they’re just more beautiful”.
Cromwell declares the crown has made “millions” from the Dissolution of the Monasteries, rather than £87,000, which might not impress today. But “as a dramatist, trying to create an effect you know is true, you get to the truth by telling a little lie”.
And The Tudors has been nothing if not effective, which makes it something of a test case in the current debate over the relationship between history and entertainment – whether the risk of imparting inaccurate information is outweighed by the chance of sparking interest in a younger generation who may otherwise turn their faces away.
“I get letters from teachers from Wales to the mid-west saying that their kids want to talk about The Tudors. We try to make these events living again.” Critics of what Antony Beevor recently derided as ‘histo-tainement’ claim that if increased interest is bought by inaccurate information, then the price may be too high, but Hirst sees the effects as strongly beneficial.
“One of the effects of The Tudors has been to drive people back to the history books with renewed interest, and we’re drawing in those who had initially no interest in the subject. From the feedback I’ve been getting, the show has galvanised interest even in academic history.”
In any case, he says, historians disagree over the interpretation of the past. “The idea of the forensic truth is clearly a lie,” and, whatever the convictions of the older guard, “I think the modern generation of historians might agree”. Perhaps it’s never more true than of the Reformation, a major theme of this third series.
Most analysis of the Reformation, Hirst says, is influenced by “the Protestant fear of Catholicism. What Cromwell started, to make the Reformation effective, was this anti-papal thing. I think the propaganda was so effective that we are still mired in it today. Our prejudice is that the Reformation was A Good Thing and we ignore, for example, its catastrophic effects in the north of England.
“There’s always been a political layer in the The Tudors, but this season it’s more pronounced. What it does for us as a show is taking us outside the court.” Moreover, exploring the broader events of this period of Henry VIII’s life fulfils what Hirst has seen from the beginning as being the series’ brief.
“This is quite melodramatic. I’m not afraid of that. The more extreme we make it, the closer to history. Most historical drama is an extension of Jane Austen.” That’s one accusation that couldn’t be levelled against The Tudors.
Sarah Gristwood is author of Elizabeth and Leicester (Bantam Books, 2008). Historian Tracy Borman also offers another take on the historical accuracy of The Tudors, which continues on BBC Two
This feature was first published in the September 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine