Magazine article The Spectator

Playing for Laughs

Magazine article The Spectator

Playing for Laughs

Article excerpt

Television Playing for laughs

You could tell Henry VIII (ITV) was going to be a hoot from the beginning, when Joss Ackland, playing the dying Henry VII in a two-line cameo role, told his son: 'You must secure the family line. Have a son. Urrrghhhh!'

''Ave a son? Nah, I'm trying to give 'em up, hurr hurr!' would have been a good reply. Ray Winstone, as the new king, is quoted in Radio Times as saying delightedly, 'I'm a kid from Plaistow and I'm playing one of the most famous kings of England!' What was unusual was that he played the king as if he were a kid from Plaistow. We don't know how Henry spoke, but it seems unlikely that his accent was from EastEnders. On meeting Anne Boleyn ('Enn Blinn') for the first time: 'Oovis rose yer brought wiv yer?' When he barked at Wolsey (David Suchet in a comedy prosthetic nose) - he only just left out the 'Oi!' - I assumed for a moment he was addressing a man whose surname was Wools.

And the laughs kept coming. Charles Dance, trying to seize the throne: 'Go back, prepare your armies, and meet me outside London in three days.' I know London was smaller then, but he could have been more precise. One waited for 'You know, that lay-by wiv a burger van on the A11 . . .'

When the battle took place, involving the usual handful of extras, it resembled a kung-fu movie, a cheap-rent Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I swear I saw a ninja blade. Then Buckingham is tortured - at least Charles Dance can do over-the-top agony - and finally topped. As the blade fell, twin spurts of blood shot out and precisely covered the eyes of two women in the (unfeasibly small) crowd. Far from bringing home the raw brutality of death in Tudor England, it merely looked like the Tories' Tony Blair 'Demon eyes' poster of 1997.

Next, lots of shots of Henry riding, riding, riding, followed by shagging, shagging, shagging. 'Wake up, king's here!' as they said in those days. Then, towards the very end, I thought that perhaps they had decided to play it straight and not as an upmarket Carry On film. I stopped laughing for around ten minutes as Anne Boleyn faced trial, and the king hung guiltily round in the shadows of the palace.

There was the affecting scene as she faced death, bending down for the last time to kiss her daughter, not knowing that one day this little girl would grow up to become Dame Judi Dench. Her courage in the face of the jeering crowd, the pour-boire passed to the swordsman, the whip of the blade - all beautifully handled. …

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