“We know what will happen; disaffected Welshmen, banished men, riff-raff from Brittany… with a following like that, what chance has Henry Tudor got?” states Elizabeth of York, concerning her predictions for the outcome of the 1485 Battle of Bosworth Field, near the beginning of the first episode of The Shadow of the Tower, the first part of The BBC Tudors Collection. Of course, her prediction was wrong. Henry was victorious, he was crowned King of England and France, and Lord of Ireland, Elizabeth became his wife and mother to a prince, two queens and a king.
The BBC Tudors Collection is a staggeringly complete look at England’s royal Tudor dynasty, which began with Henry the VII. The 12-disc set boasts three miniseries covering the lives and reigns of these most famous monarchs. It also contains several other dramatic productions, documentaries and historical presentations.
The collection begins with 1972’s The Shadow of the Tower: The Rise of the Tudor Dynasty, featuring James Maxwell (Portrait of a Lady, Doctor Who) in the defining portrayal of Henry VII. Though often overshadowed by the many marital exploits and the religious reformation instigated by his son, Henry VII is vastly more interesting as a political power and, arguably, more intriguing as a human being, as well.
Maxwell’s performance in these 13 episodes that cover Henry’s 23 year reign is thoughtful and compelling; it’s very easy to imagine that this is what the real Henry Tudor must have been like. This great king’s shrewd intelligence, as well as his awareness of both his sovereignty over his kingdom and its place within the wider world, are conveyed with great ease. This is unquestionably the most fascinating of the three series, as much for Maxwell’s engaging portrait of England’s first monarch of the modern age, as for the wealth of detail about Henry himself.
In addition to the more than 11 hours of The Shadow of the Tower, this series includes the preceding, 50-minute, 1969 television production The Tower of London: The Innocent, which also starred Maxwell in the royal role, and Hooray Henry!, in which historian Dai Smith explores the historical record of the Battle of Bosworth and the transition from Richard III to Henry VII.
Next in The BBC Tudors Collection is The Six Wives of Henry VIII, which was actually produced in 1970, but obviously comes second in the historical chronology. It stars Keith Michell as Henry VIII throughout, with each episode focusing on one wife at a time: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr. Michell, of course, ties the series together with his rather blustery take on the infamous king. Unfortunately, none of the woman are particularly noticeable, save Angela Pleasence as Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth and youngest wife.
Perhaps it’s because she was a teenager, but Pleasence’s queen is the only one to show much enthusiasm and the only one to demonstrate a range of emotion. Included on The Six Wives of Henry VIII are character portraits—paintings of the historical figures presented alongside still of the actors who played them—and the 2003 BBC adaptation of Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, which is far superior to both the Natalie Portman/Scarlett Johansson version and to The Six Wives of Henry VIII.
However, it’s 1971’s Elizabeth R that outshines all the other productions mentioned, here. Its superiority is due almost entirely to the incomparable Glenda Jackson (Women in Love) as the virgin queen, Elizabeth I. Jackson plays the legendary queen through all phases of the 50 years of her life dramatized here, from teenage bastardized princess to independent young monarch, from fierce political force to beloved and stately queen. She is mesmerizing to watch and breath-taking to behold. Additionally, much of Jackson’s dialogue is taken directly from the letters and speeches of Elizabeth herself, so viewers are able to get a real sense of the great queen beyond the lavish costumes and striking makeup we know from official portraiture.
This Elizabeth is formidable, as one might expect, but she is equally flirtatious. It’s well-known that Queen Elizabeth used her charm as often as her keen intelligence to rule and to gain the love of her people, but this production is much more straightforward in showing that than is sometimes the case. There is much less “did she or didn’t she?” here. The queen clearly loved the Earl of Leicester, and she was smitten with the 2nd Earl of Essex, but these affections are demonstrated onscreen, as indeed they must have been in real life, as words and deeds of devotion, rather than as stolen physical encounters. That the passions are largely verbal expressions makes them all the more powerful (in fact, in the whole The BBC Tudors Collection there are only, perhaps three brief flashes of partial nudity, none of them gratuitous).
Also powerful is the transformation Glenda Jackson undergoes. In the first episode of Elizabeth R she starts as the lion’s cub, and as the series progresses, she slowly affects a complete ascension to Gloriana. It’s magnificent to watch, and it owes as much to the fabulous period hair, makeup and costumes, as it does to Jackson’s investment in the character and script. The effort that went into this portrayal of Elizabeth I is discussed in interview segments from 2001, which are part of this series’ bonus features. Also featured are audio recordings of Jackson reading period documents, a documentary-style overview of Elizabeth’s life and reign, a discussion of the historical background with author and historian Alison Weir, and a photo gallery consisting of the many official paintings of Elizabeth I.
Elizabeth R is the pinnacle of these three productions, with The Shadow of the Tower: The Rise of the Tudor Dynasty a close contender. The Six Wives of Henry VIII is not quite as impressive, but with more than 28 hours of riveting historical drama, plus several hours worth of bonus features and other DVD extras, The BBC Tudors Collection is still the definitive resource on the royal house of Tudor.