On Sunday, Showtime presents the 10th and final episode of Season One of “The Tudors,” its lavish, lusty and successful series about the tumultuous younger days of Britain’s King Henry VIII, best known for marrying often, if not often marrying well.
Henry and his six wives have been seen on film before, but never in such detail. Normally, a 10-episode run would have covered all the wives, with Henry’s (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) funeral thrown in to boot. Here, the first 10 hours have chronicled only the dissolution of Henry’s first (and longest) marriage, a political union with Catherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy), the virtuous and strong-willed daughter of Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella (best known for bankrolling Christopher Columbus).
After failing to produce a male heir, Catherine was urged in the strongest possible terms to step aside, in particular to make room for the seductive and ambitious Lady Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer). She refused to go quietly, and the resulting political and religious turmoil - combined with Henry’s desperate desire to father a legitimate son - resulted in Henry breaking with the Roman Catholic Church and establishing himself as head of the church in his own land.
“The Tudors” perhaps represents the first time that Catherine has been given her due.
“We felt her story needed to be told,” says executive producer Ben Silverman (who has just taken over as NBC’s new entertainment co-chair). “It was so informative of Henry’s genesis, where he came from and the relationship that begat all this. It makes more sense if you really delve into it.”
“She’s usually pretty quickly dispensed with,” says Showtime entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt, speaking of Catherine, “and Anne Boleyn gets most of the attention. (Writer/creator) Michael Hirst, in doing his research and getting into the story, could create characters. That’s one of the virtues of playing it out, and not having to do it in one quick miniseries.
“We could really see Henry and Catherine. He didn’t hate her. In fact, in the beginning, he cared a lot for her. It was just a weird situation, because he was forced to marry her. Then he falls in love with somebody that he really gets attracted to, and the rest is history, as they say.”
Production is under way in Ireland on Season Two, which begins with Henry and Catherine still not quite divorced, and the nation in upheaval.
“We’ve already written season two,” Greenblatt says, “and it really is the marriage of Anne and Henry, which doesn’t happen until Episode Three. But then three through 10 are basically Anne of the Thousand Days, which is the three years of that marriage. She’s beheaded at the end of Episode 10, which won’t be a surprise to anybody. I think people do know that.”
Because it’s on Showtime, “The Tudors” goes full-bore in exploring what was a bawdy and dynamic period in England, full of heaving bosoms and secret affairs. It sometimes sacrifices historical detail for drama, but Greenblatt has found that people use it as a jumping-off point to dig deeper into the real details of Henry’s reign.
“You know what I love about this show,” he says, “people come to it because they think they’re going to get a sexy soap opera, and they do. But after they watch it - I hear so many people say, `I went online, and I wanted to find out what really happened. I wanted to see who Buckingham was.’
“Not that we’re trying to be educational, but I think it’s fun that people get caught up in it enough to look and see what might really have happened.”
The past can also be used to comment on the present.
“If you look at the conscience of Thomas More,” says Silverman, a history major at Tufts, “the vitality but also the quick decision-making of our king - you can see parallels in contemporary politics and also in geopolitical elements. One of the amazing things about being a student of history is to watch it repeat.
“One of the reasons I became a history major was because I saw period pieces in the movies and television that made me want to go into those worlds from an historical perspective and not just an entertainment perspective.”
There is a novelization of Season One by Anne Gracie, called “The Tudors: The King, the Queen and the Mistress,” due out from Simon Spotlight Entertainment in the fall. It’s the second book based on the series, preceded by the companion volume “The Tudors: It’s Good to Be King,” with a foreword by Hirst, which came out in April.
There were four more wives after Anne, and at the rate “The Tudors” is progressing, it could go on for a while - but Greenblatt won’t speculate how long.
“I don’t really guess,” he says, “because I never know what will happen. I’m thrilled to be doing a second season, and we’ll see how that plays.”
But, he reveals, “The next wife is Jane Seymour. She may appear at the end of the second season.”
Casting for that role has not been announced, but when the name Kate Winslet is tossed out, Greenblatt says, “I wish. That would be fantastic.”