You may well have groaned when you saw there was to be yet another programme about the Six Wives of Henry VIII, or if you are a real Tudor junkie, like the Tudor Times team, you might have been thrilled. The Six Wives will forever be associated in my mind with the marvellous depictions in the BBC series the Six Wives of Henry VIII, which aired in 1970 – how could a new series better that?
Cleverly, the BBC has not sought to repeat that format, but has come up with something quite different, which I believe will be as inspiring to a new generation. It is a combination of documentary and drama, but far outstripping some of the lame re-enactments that have the viewer blushing on behalf of the actor, squeezed into strange costumes, trying to sound like a mediaeval peasant.
Dr Worsley, Joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, always engaging, indulges her taste for costume drama, but is far too clever to try to portray one of the Queens. Instead, she is a servant – present at the great moments of drama, but never intruding on them. Then, in her own persona, she brings her considerable knowledge to bear on the background to the scenes shown, explaining how the political forces of the day affected these women’s lives, just as their personal lives affected politics.
Almost all of the first episode is devoted to Katharine of Aragon – justly so, as Katharine was at Henry’s side for twenty-two years, the first sixteen of which were happy and harmonious, before their inability to have a male child finally drove them apart – not helped by the appearance of the witty and captivating Anne Boleyn.
We see Katharine as Regent, with a steely determination inherited from her mother, the warrior queen Isabella, we see her as a beloved wife, and then we see her fight for her marriage and her role as queen, using all her intelligence, and her political guile. At the same time we feel the emotional trauma that she endured – numerous pregnancies, but only one living child and an unfaithful husband.
The talented Spanish actor Paola Bontempi makes a marvellous Katharine – no ham accent, and a very regal stance, yet we feel her very real emotions. Henry himself is a little wooden, but this is not primarily about him, so it does not hurt for him to take a back seat. The costumes and settings are superb, and the overall atmosphere draws you in and keeps you enthralled. Even though most of us know it will end badly for Katharine, you still find yourself hoping that baby will live…
The historical consultant for the series is well-known Tudor historian, Dr Linda Porter, so we can be sure that the facts are absolutely spot on.
Watch a short clip from Episode One - A Gift from Anne Boleyn - here
Episode One of Six Wives with Lucy Worsley screens on BBC One at 9pm on Wednesday 7 December 2016 in the UK and Secret Lives of the Six Wives is on PBS on Sunday 22 January 2017 in the US.