Six Wives of Henry VIII

1970 | United Kingdom

Award winning BBC costume drama of the highest quality starring Keith Michell as the infamous Tudor King who bought about the dissolution of the monasteries and whose Act of Supremacy in 1534 gave his country the anomaly, still surviving today, of a monarch who is head of a church. 

A fine supporting cast in what was essentially a sequence of six self-contained plays, one for each wife. From parts one to six we saw Henry growing in age from a slim 17 year old to an obese 56 year old, as he married six different women with the sole purpose that one of them would present him with a male heir to ascend to the throne after his death. Historically accurate, the series contained the treacherous double dealings, whispered conspiracies and bloody murders that were prevalent at that time in English history, and set new audience records when it was shown on its initial run on BBC2. 

The series was probably the first to change the image of Henry that had been etched on the public consciousness in 1933 by the formidable Charles Laughton portrayal in the big screen biopic The Private Life of Henry VIII in which the monarch was shown for the most part as gluttonous, roaring and ranting. The movie was the first British picture to win an Oscar so the image was firmly set on both sides of the Atlantic. However, this BBC production dispelled many of the myths and showed Henry as an excellent scholar who spoke four languages other than his native tongue (Latin, French, Italian and Greek), a student of mathematics and astronomy, a gifted musician and a superb athlete. He was, most likely England's first civilised king.

To make the series look as genuine as possible costume designer John Bloomfield spent three months researching at the National Portrait Gallery, Windsor Castle and numerous libraries. The costumes were achieved by using cheap materials and working them with paints, resins and using screen-printing methods before drawing on them with fibre tip pens. On screen they looked both rich and authentic. When it came to playing Henry, Keith Michell had to age over the six episodes from young athlete to a fat, disillusioned and lonely monarch who would eventually die at the age of 56. 

The series mirrored the movie's success in the United States by picking up a well-deserved Emmy Award for Keith Michell for Outstanding Continued Performance in a Leading Dramatic Series and a feature film followed in 1972 with Michell in the lead role once again. Realising what a rich source of drama they had tapped into the BBC was not slow to cash in on its popularity, following the series with a direct sequel, Elizabeth R.

Published on January 31st, 2019. Written by Laurence Marcus (2004) for Television Heaven.