It may, or may not, have escaped your notice that the rumour spreading around Tinsel Town is that Damian Lewis is rumoured to be in talks to play Henry VIII, in the much-anticipated TV adaptation of Wolf Hall. I hope he’s been chosen for his acting chops and not his ability to make them ladies swoon. I hope this because this rumour comes off the back of a raft of recent historical TV that has seemed to have been centred purely upon trying to make historical figures seem – dare I say it – sexy. As actor John Hawkes was quoted in the LA Times recently an accurate “period face is going away from our culture” replaced by teeth whitening, yoga and plastic surgery.
So what is this obsession in recent years with portraying figures from the past as Hollywood-hot? What does it say about us as a people if we even uphold those long-dead to modern perceptions of perfection? Or even worse if Tumblr is anything to go by, as objects of sexual fantasy?
In 2007 Rhys Meyers strutted onto the scene as a Bluff King Hal with a penchant for leather cod-pieces and banging every floozy in sight (even peasant girls – quelle horreur) without a drop of ginger or middle-aged-spred to be seen. Fair enough Henry VIII was described in his youth as fairly handsome, with a ‘fire in his eyes, beauty in his face and roses in his cheeks,’ tall and athletic with auburn hair but I doubt that he and Anne Boleyn quite looked like an early-modern poster campaign for the Kooples (right). Especially with him being mid-forties by the time of Anne’s execution.
Touching upon the gorgeous Natalie Dormer (the face that launched a brief interest in history for more than a couple of my acquaintances) Laura Churchill’s recent reconstruction of Anne’s ‘Moost Happi’ potrait medal of 1534 shows that Anne was a rather regular looking gal (there’s hope for us all!) The medal, approved of by Eric Ives, Alison Weir and David Starkey, shows Anne as the sources suggest, not beautiful as such, but enigmatic with a certain je ne sais quoi which kept a King interested for nigh on a decade.
A year later and The Devil’s Whore provided us with a similarly sexed-up narrative, this time of the Civil War. Centred around a fictitious Lady Angelica Fanshawe, our heroine just happened to be lucky enough to have a relationship with nearly every key male figure of the period. Thomas Rainsborough become her equality loving second husband in direct contrast to her initial misogynist Cavalier cousin. Colonel Edward Sexby was portrayed as a rough-and-ready, Parliamentarian knight-in-not-very-shiny armour, who it turns out had loved Fanshawe since even before the war. How romantic! There was unrequited love, garter flashing and even the early-modern equivalent of date rape. The casting of Harry Lloyd (GoT’s Viserys Targaryen) as Prince Rupert of the Rhine was pretty uncanny though (bottom).
Now to the zenith… 2013’s The White Queen took historical fetishization to new heights. This was the Wars of the Roses sponsored by Hollister and Tresemmé. Elizabeth ‘the Witch’ Woodeville was Elle cover shoot ready with a rather nice tan, Edward IV was more like Edward Cullen than a battlefield killer and Richard III was more Heathcliff than Hunchback. Barnard spent most of the early episodes running through palace gardens after twilight. A billowing black cloak blew about him, he looked constantly brooding and swept his fair lady-love Anne Neville off her feet with secret garden meetings after saving her at Tewkesbury of course. His dark wardrobe had more than a hint of the Gerard Way about it. Testament to the power of The White Queen’s potrayal of Barnard’s Richard is that, instead of castles and car parks, he now haunts dozens of love struck teen’s Tumblr blogs (things have really moved on since Olivier’s Richard III – Jebus)!
I suppose that last sentence sums up for me the point of this rambling. I wish we as a culture would leave the bodice ripping to Mr Darcy, Heathcliff or Mr Rochester and keep the history as accurate as we can. It may just be my degree talking though. To get back to the stimulus of this piece, Mantel is a brilliant author. Her Wolf Hall trilogy is well-regarded by historians, it’s even been called a good companion to G.R. Elton’s Revolution in Government. I hope that the upcoming TV adaptation will play for substance over style. Let’s not forget should he take the role that Lewis will be playing Henry at the start of middle age; balding, fattening and in the case of Mantel’s novel with a penchant for falling asleep dribbling straight after dinner. God forbid too if Rylance’s Cromwell is portrayed in a fanciable light (the family man ripped by the tragedy of his wife and daughter’s deaths – I can see it now…).
Let it be said though should Hollywood recreate my life, for whatever reason, I call dibs on Mila Kunis.