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Case Number 25967: Small Claims Court

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Secrets of Henry VIII's Palace

PBS // 2013 // 55 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // July 14th, 2013

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All Rise...

Judge Gordon Sullivan's house has a network of spy cameras. Don't tell him, though.

The Charge

Step inside the historic Hampton Court

The Case

As The Tudors made clear, there's plenty of stories to tell about Henry VIII. Many of those stories revolve around Hampton Court Palace, which had Henry VIII as its first royal resident. Situated 10 miles away from London and linked by the famous River Thames, Hampton Court Palace is a beautiful marvel of architecture, a site of numerous scandals, and an important part of the history of the British monarchy. Secrets of Henry VIII's Palace attempts to convey all of this in a little under an hour. Though sometimes the tone can be grating, this program offers up a decent bit of history while showcasing one of the more magnificent 500-plus-year-old buildings in the world.

Secrets of Henry VIII's Palace gets by on the same bread-and-butter components that most PBS documentaries use. This program tells the 500-plus-year story of Hampton Court Palace by focusing on its most famous occupants (primarily Henry VIII and his wives). We learn about the place through a combination of talking-head interviews with authors/historians, footage from the Palace itself, and short recreations and reenactments of historical moments.

The British monarchy has been associated with a number of sites over the last several hundred years. Only a few of those places—The Tower of London or Buckingham Palace, for example—can claim to have the notoriety of Hampton Court Palace. For those who've always wondered about the history of this iconic location, look no further than Secrets of Henry VIII's Palace. Though it's far from exhaustive, this documentary spends 55 minutes going over the history of the place, focusing mainly on its sumptuous appointments and numerous scandals. Luckily it has more than enough of both to keep things moving for the whole hour as we learn about the intrigues and deals that were struck under gold-leaf encrusted ceilings and among the sixty acres of formal gardens.

As someone who has visited Hampton Court, I can attest that it's as lovely as this documentary makes it seem. However, I'm less convinced that it requires this kind of documentary. While I'm fine with the shots of the palace grounds and enjoyed hearing from the talking heads about the history, I'm less impressed by the attempts to "jazz up" the story of the place. The whole thing opens with music that fits more with a James Bond film than a documentary about a royal palace (though it is preferable to the canned lute music so many Renaissance-focused docs use). It tries to keep up that tense, scandalous pace throughout, but it gets tiring pretty quickly. Yes, a lot of salacious stuff happened on the grounds, but we hardly need a Henry VIII lookalike mugging in front of the camera to sell the sexiness. I would love to see a fictionalization of Henry's court shot at Hampton (like Marie Antoinette), but the reenactments here do very little add to the history or the atmosphere of the documentary.

The DVD of Secrets of Henry VIII's Palace is fine. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is clear and bright, with plenty of detail to spare for the sumptuous interiors and intricate garden exteriors. Colors are well saturated, and compression artifacts aren't a serious problem. The Dolby Digital stereo track keeps the narration and talking-heads balanced with the doc's musical track. English subtitles are also included.

Sadly, there are no extras. This is a set where a few deleted bits might be nice to cover areas that were excised for TV running time. A few full-length interviews with the experts would be nice, too—or even some unedited footage of the grounds to loop on a screen at parties.

Secrets of Henry VIII's Palace is a decent documentary that gives viewers a pretty good idea of the highlights of the history of this iconic location. Unless you teach British history at the high school level, I can't see this having much replay value, but for Anglophiles who like a bit of history (or those who've visited and want to know more or have a moving memento) will enjoy this documentary. I'd prefer a few more extras and a few less reenactments, but over Secrets of Henry VIII's Palace is a worthwhile look at history.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 80

Perp Profile

Studio: PBS
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 55 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Historical
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• None

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