09 October 2007

Dude, where's my sceptre?

After a series of mildly risible royal romps (Helen Mirren playing Elizabeth I in the style of Julie Walters; Rufus Sewell doing Charles II as a tired aristocrat version of The Stud), I was wondering how much further highbrow TV drama could go in trivialising key figures from history. The answer is, a good deal, judging by the BBC's latest offering, The Tudors — a North American production, but very much in the spirit of contemporary BBC historical dramas. It's great fun if you like soft porn and gangster movies, and especially if you enjoy a bit of demythologising. As serious historical drama it's as repellent (or attractive, depending on your taste) as the BBC's Rome.

It's rather as if the portrayal of bourgeois/aristocratic behaviour is considered too threateningly non-egalitarian for a popular audience, unless it is safely confined to fiction (e.g. Jane Austen, Agatha Christie). It seems to be regarded as important by cultural producers that episodes from political or cultural history should be portrayed as similar in flavour to Coronation Street or The Bill. Perhaps this approach is supposed to be more 'inclusive'. As the producer of another popular BBC drama series commented in an email to me, for purposes of mass media "characters and narratives need to be as accessible as possible". I'm not convinced, however, that the particular approach used by producers actually does make history more "accessible", rather than just turning it into something else altogether.

The Tudors is heavy on the 'psychological', but selectively so. Stroppiness, horniness: yes. Thoughtfulness, aristocratic demeanour: no, except in the dodgier characters. The series started, naturally, with some healthy dollops of violence and sex. Within the first five minutes we get to watch a brutal assassination and a session of bare-breasted frolicking. The camera style is clearly designed to extract maximum viewing pleasure from both.

What are the ideological messages being transmitted here? Well, in a mediocracy we must not be reminded that there used to be a world in which some individuals were not mere ciphers. Historical figures therefore have to be portrayed in a ‘proletarian’ style, in order to show them as people who would be compatible with mediocratic values and acceptable to a mass audience.

Ideally, references to exceptional historical figures would be eliminated altogether, since they encourage the idea that individuals can be significant. On the other hand, it may be simpler to remould rather than abolish existing bourgeois culture. Building a replacement culture from scratch can be tiring. A more convenient strategy is therefore to subtly deprecate such figures, or alternatively to show that they were in greater sympathy with egalitarian values than had been hitherto realised.