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Forty years ago this week the first wave of historical drama in colour burst on to British TV: The Six Wives of Henry VIII, starring Keith Michell and a host of female stars. Remember it? In the course of six separate dramas (one for each wife), British audiences watched captivated as Keith Michell slowly transformed himself from a youthful and athletic prince into a gout-ridden and obese monster. Historical drama would never be the same again...

Of course much of it was due to the advent of colour TV. Tested over the previous three years, BBC One had only just gone to colour in November 1969, so literally only a couple of months before this. Suddenly, costume drama - be it literary or historical - had a whole different purpose. It showed off and challenged the new innovation to the maximum. Listen to the series costume designer, John Bloomfield, on the Great Moments slide show, as he recounted in 1970 to Blue Peter's Valerie Singleton (herself in Anne Boleyn costume) how he had used cheap fabrics, glass, piped glue and even household washers to achieve the sumptuous period effect! And, following the series, audiences queued for hours to see the glittering costumes in real life, as they toured their way round the UK.



And so began TV's love affair with Henry VIII, and indeed the Tudors in general. Of course, the big screen had already featured Henry's larger-than-life persona - as early as 1911 Arthur Bourchier played the egoistical monarch, followed by Charles Laughton in 1933, Richard Burton in 1969 and Sid James in the Carry On version in 1971... Television would now take up the historical baton, producing Glenda Jackson in Elizabeth R a year later. And so it went on, right up to the current moment when we have Jonathan Rhys Meyers giving us the latest (and much slimmer) version in 2007-9. It seems that Henry VIII is to historical drama what Jane Austen is to literary drama: endlessly fascinating, endlessly bankable.

I suppose the answer to his perennial attraction lies in that predictable and heady mix of dramatic ingredients: power, sex, religion, politics, death. Oh, and six wives! Of course there have been academic scuffles around the edges - over factual inaccuracies and inappropriate dramatic licence - and these debates are likely to go on, as drama and history align themselves in different partnerships along the TV continuum. Now the formats blur, with more drama in documentary, more documentary in drama...

As we enter a new decade, what next for historical drama? On the immediate horizon are Atlantis on BBC One, a dramatisation of the submersion of that ancient civilisation, and Royal Wedding on BBC Two - a drama set in rural Wales against the backdrop of the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. So, distant past and almost contemporary history. It may be that we'll have to wait a few more years for the Henry VIII of this new decade, but almost certainly he will come.

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