TV monarchs: Fact vs fiction

TV monarchs: Fact vs fiction

02/11/2016TV

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On Friday 4th November, there’s going to be a right royal reason to get onto Netflix. For that, lords and ladies, is when we’ll finally get to watch The Crown – the lavish, expensive, star-studded, well-posh new series charting the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

Claire Foy certainly looks the part of the young Liz, while Matt Smith… well, he doesn’t really look too much too anyone else, ever, but he’s sure to be fantastic as Prince Philip. As for the historical details, experts will surely start arguing about all of that as soon as the show hits our screens. In the meantime, as a kind of warm up, let’s consider some previous depictions of British monarchs, and how true to life they’ve been… 

 

Henry VIII (The Tudors)

Before we all scoff at pretty boy Jonathan Rhys Meyers playing the lumbering meat-mountain that was Henry VIII, let’s admit that he’s a fine casting for the YOUNG Henry. You know, back when the king was a svelte, sexy, dashing chap. The problem is, Rhys Meyers stays looking all svelte and sexy and Rhys Meyers-ish right through to the end of the series, even during the era when the real Henry weighed 30 stone and stank of open sores. In the real words of one of the studio execs behind The Tudors: “An exact portrayal of Henry is not a factor that we think is important.” Well of course not. Why would it be?

Realism rating: 2.5/5

 

Margaret Tudor (The Tudors)

OK, Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, wasn’t an actual monarch. But the sheer cheek of how she’s depicted in The Tudors warrants mention here. First of all, the “Margaret Tudor” of The Tudors never really existed. This character is actually a bizarre amalgam of TWO different sisters, Margaret and Mary – the latter being completely deleted from history in this series. We also see our new, made-up Margaret marrying the King of Portugal, and then suffocating him in his sleep. None of which happened. The show literally just invents a royal-on-royal murder, presumably because real history is for nerds and losers and doesn’t have enough hot murderer ladies, so that’s OK then.

Realism rating: 0/5

 

Henry VIII (Wolf Hall)

Another Henry, and this time we have Damien Lewis playing the marriage-crazed monarch. Again, he doesn’t look all that much like the real thing, but Lewis is at least a redhead, which is historically accurate, and – while Rhys Meyers generally came across like an emo kid having a strop – Lewis exudes the imperious aloofness we can well imagine the real Henry having. While Wolf Hall got plenty of applause for its serious, detailed look at Henry’s reign, some historians did quibble about the amount of influence Cromwell was shown to have on the king. We’ll let the PhDs fight that one out.

Realism rating: 4/5

 

Elizabeth I (Elizabeth R)

Classic 70s series Elizabeth R was the Wolf Hall of its day, and starred Glenda Jackson as the Virgin Queen. It was instantly iconic performance, and we’re going to go out on a limb and suggest that’s partly because of how terrifying she looks with her chalk-white face. But it’s also because Jackson is utterly outstanding in the role, and is still the Elizabeth I we must measure all others against. The only possible quibble? The fact that she was in her mid-30s, so playing the teenage Princess Elizabeth was maybe a bit of a stretch.

Realism rating: 4.5/5

 

Queen Victoria (Victoria)

A tricky series to judge, this. On the one hand, it’s lovely and opulent and Jenna Coleman is great in the part of the young Victoria. On the other hand, there’s more guff than you can shake a sceptre at. To just pick one example, how about that scene where Victoria desperately proposes to prime minister Lord Melbourne? Yep, that never happened, perhaps because the real Lord Melbourne looked less like Rufus Sewell and more like a big old man, which is what he was. Also, simply in shallow terms, the delicate and poised Jenna Coleman is far removed from the “tempestuous, wilful, plump young queen” (to quote an eminent historian).

Realism rating: 2/5

 

Charles II (Charles II: The Power and the Passion)

It’s Rufus Sewell again! And this time HE is the monarch! The so-called “Merry Monarch”, in fact. This appropriately hedonistic series chronicled his return to England from exile, and how he went about the troublesome job of rebuilding the monarchy after the era of Oliver Cromwell. Yes, there are a few glaring fibs – like the bit where he pardons some of the people behind his father Charles I’s execution (the real Charles II wasn’t quite so forgiving). But who cares about such trifles? With his dark curls and sensual features, Rufus Sewell is the very picture of the king, and does the whole decadent womanising dandy thing like he was born for the part.

Realism rating: 5/5

 

The Prince Regent (Blackadder the Third)

Thanks to Hugh Laurie, most of us think of the Prince Regent as a clueless, lazy, spoilt, drunken fool who was as thick as a whale sandwich. And you know what? That’s pretty much how people thought of him at the time. A contemporary journalist wrote that George preferred “a girl and a bottle to politics and a sermon", and another man of the era said that “a more contemptible, cowardly, selfish, unfeeling dog does not exist”. All of which makes Blackadder seem pretty darn accurate, even if we must reluctantly admit the real Regent was also a patron of the arts and probably not quite as monumentally dumb as Hugh Laurie makes out. But let’s just pretend he was, because it’s more fun that way.

Realism rating: 4/5


The Crown is available to watch on Netflix from Friday 4th November.

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