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The Six Faces of Henry VIII

Ian Hislop sidesteps the spin to conjure a clear image of Henry VIII, from the many and various versions created in the years from Holbein to 21st-century HD television.

With the help of writers, historians, musicologists, film buffs and Alan Bennett, Ian Hislop sets out to analyse six images of Henry VIII which turn out to be rather better portraits of the periods in which they were created than they are historical insights into the King himself. However, given that his most famous portrait, by Hans Holbein, is itself an artfully drawn propaganda tool we shouldn't be all that surprised.

Henry has always been associated with numeric scale. The eighth Henry with six wives; nothing associated with him comes in ones and twos. And so it is with the images of our glowering, beefy, puffy-cheeked monarch. The range is enormous, from Hans Holbein's splay-footed heavyweight to the surly athleticism of Jonathan Rhys Meyers in BBC One's The Tudors.

Shakespeare produced an understandably careful dramatic portrait, but the Director Alexander Korda used his 1930's film The Private Life of Henry VIII to show us Charles Laughton as the consummate spoilt brat, a glutton with the heart of a valiant schoolboy and the stomach of several kings. This was the first time we saw a Henry who chucked chicken bones over his shoulder, slapped his thigh and laughed loudly, sure in the knowledge that the world would laugh with him.

And then there are the Operatic versions supplied in the 19th century by Saint Saens and Donnizetti respectively. Here Henry is more monster than man alongside the sad heroines Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. They were, of course, coming from a rather more Catholic perspective. Meanwhile in Restoration History books he's a seventeenth century Hercules.

So who gets closest to the real King?

Ian Hislop enjoys nothing better than debunking myth, and there's plenty of myth that has accrued around Henry, or as the music-hall song had him 'our 'Enery'. But there's quite a lot of truth as well, not about the King but about the ages in which he was re-created. It seems that he and his doings are a perennial story for 'our' times, whenever those times might be.

But if the various images of Henry only serve to enlighten us about other periods long after the Tudors should we resort to the simple shock tactics of Alan Bennett's savvy teacher in The History Boys and say 'for Henry VIII think Stalin?' Who better to answer that than Alan Bennett himself who joins Ian to create a sixth and, for our age, a final image of Henry VIII.

Producer: Tom Alban.

30 minutes

Last on

Wed 27 Jun 2018 01:30


Role Contributor
Presenter Ian Hislop
Producer Tom Alban
Visual Editor Philip Sellars