Judge Gordon Sullivan's romantic history was covered by the BBC in a 30-second spot.
The Definitive Screen Portrait of England's Tudor Dynasty
The Tudor reign began, for all intents and purposes, with Henry VII's defeat of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and ended with Elizabeth I's death and the passing of the monarchy to James I. Because Henry VII's claim to the throne was a bit tenuous (he was descended from a bastard who had been retroactively made into a legitimate heir), the Tudor dynasty was plagued with concerns about succession, legitimacy, and intrigue. In addition to the internal difficulties, the Tudors presided over one of the most tumultuous cultural upheavals in Western history, as sophistication in the arts, sciences, trade, and exploration increased exponentially. Because of the cultural importance of this time to the British people, the BBC put together a series of television dramas that gives viewers a peek into the lives of three of the biggest Tudors. These three series have been compiled into a single DVD release: the BBC Tudors Collection. Now fans can see all the intrigues again in one place, and those with a broader interest in the Tudor and Elizabethan periods can get an introduction to these much-treasured dramas.
Facts of the Case
Although chronologically produced last, The Shadow of the Tower covers the start of the Tudor dynasty, opening in the confusing aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth Field. The rest of the thirteen episodes cover Henry's securing of the throne and his family's power. All thirteen episodes are included here:
The Six Wives of Henry VIII is produced like it sounds. Each wife gets her own episode, and they too are spread across four discs:
Finally, Elizabeth R covers the reign of Henry VIII's daughter, Queen Elizabeth I. Spreading six episodes across her forty-four-year reign, Elizabeth R focuses on the numerous intrigues (especially with men) during her lifetime. All six episodes are included on these four discs:
The Six Wives of Henry VIII was commissioned by the BBC for 1970. Six wives, six playwrights, and six plays that were broadcast to great acclaim in Britain before gaining some traction on PBS' Masterpiece Theater (snagging Keith Mitchell both an Emmy and a BAFTA award for his portrayal of Henry). The series was so successful that the BBC followed it up with Elizabeth R, focusing on Henry VIII's daughter. It was an even bigger success than The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and some still claim that Glenda Jackson's portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I is unmatched, even considering the talents of Helen Mirren and Cate Blanchett. This success spawned a prequel, The Shadow of the Tower, about the start of the Tudor dynasty in Henry VII.
Though I'm sure many might have cause to quibble with the BBC, they do know quality. When they set out to make a drama, they ensure it's worth making and get the best possible actors to perform for them. That makes The BBC Tudors Collection as much a document about British history, as it is a document of British history. On the one hand we have a well-acted, fairly even-keeled portrayal of a rich period of the British monarchy, and on the other we have an example of the best kind of drama the BBC could produce during this era of its existence.
Everything from the casting to the sets and costumes speaks to the quality behind these productions. For the most part too, the writing is solid. Much of what we know about the inner lives of these historical figures is conjecture, but the dramas here stick with supportable, middle-of-the-road interpretations of the characters. This occasionally leaves them without any grand dramatic weight, but overall these are engaging portraits of some of the more famous monarchs in history.
As a DVD set, The BBC Tudors Collection is as much as fans can hope for. The transfers of these series are only so-so. No major restoration has been done on the original materials, so detail isn't particularly strong. Splashy colors weren't the BBC's style, so the visuals here are pretty accurate, with solid black levels. Because of the generous space given to these twenty-eight hours of material, very little compression or digital artifacting is visible. The mono soundtracks keep all the dialogue audible, but offer little else to entice the ears.
Extras are surprisingly strong for series of this vintage. Shadow of the Tower gets a 50-minute pilot episode and a short profile of Henry VII by historian Dal Smith. Included in the case is a booklet with production information and photos. The Six Wives of Henry VIII includes the BBC adaptation of Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl and some character portraits. Elizabeth R has two different interviews with star Glenda Jackson, a photo gallery, and some historical notes by Alison Weir, an Elizabeth biographer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the fact that these series scream quality, they're not perfect. No attempt has really been made to relate the Tudors to more modern viewers. Certainly that means no excessive sex (as in The Tudors), but it also means it can be hard to relate to these characters on a human level. I suspect that if these same stories were told about characters whose names weren't huge in the history books, very few people would care. Some of the intrigue is definitely compelling, but considering this is a mostly-stage bound dramatic portrayal, the lack of characters we can relate to is difficult. Also, the BBC should have quit while it was ahead. The Shadow of the Tower is fine history, but Henry VII died with his borders intact and his treasury full of gold. There's arguably as much intrigue in his life as those of his son and granddaughter, but this series struggles to bring it to life. It's not a bad way to start this set, but I can see it being a bit of a bummer after the triumphs of The Six Wives and Elizabeth R. Finally, to nitpick, for completeness' sake the set should include Henry VIII and his Six Wives, a film spinoff of the first series that featured Keith Mitchell reprising his role as Henry VIII.
All three of the sets collected here have seen release before on DVD, and with no added content, upgrading will be a difficult decisions. Obviously if you own all the separate sets already, there's no need to pay for the cardboard sleeve that holds them. However, if you only have one of the previous sets and can find a deal on this collection, it might be worthwhile to have all three in one place. For those unfamiliar with any of these shows, they can be easily recommended to anyone with an interest in British drama from the 1970s, or anyone with an interest in Renaissance culture. It probably won't hold much interest for fans looking for another Tudors, but Masterpiece Theater fans will almost certainly be pleased.
Despite all the questionable behavior, the Tudors are not guilty.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, The Six Wives Of Henry VIII
Perp Profile, The Six Wives Of Henry VIII
Studio: BBC Video
Distinguishing Marks, The Six Wives Of Henry VIII
• Bonus Film
Scales of Justice, Elizabeth R.
Perp Profile, Elizabeth R.
Studio: BBC Video
Distinguishing Marks, Elizabeth R.
Scales of Justice, The Shadow Of The Tower
Perp Profile, The Shadow Of The Tower
Studio: BBC Video
Distinguishing Marks, The Shadow Of The Tower
• Pilot Episode
Review content copyright © 2011 Gordon Sullivan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.