'The Tudors' Battles with the Truth The show joins Rome and Deadwood in a string of TV programs dramatizing important chapters in history. These programs don't always get the facts right, but does it really matter?
NPR logo

'The Tudors' Battles with the Truth

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89182466/89186896" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'The Tudors' Battles with the Truth

'The Tudors' Battles with the Truth

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89182466/89186896" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Sunday night, after you are done watching basketball, there will be a new season of the Showtime series "The Tudors" waiting for you. It is the latest in a string of TV shows like "Rome" and "Deadwood" that dramatize important chapters in history. Dramatize being the operative word. Day to Day's Alex Cohen has more.

ALEX COHEN: In the first season of the Tudors, King Henry VIII played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers marries off his sister Margaret against her will to the much older King of Portugal.

Mr. JONATHAN RHYS MEYERS: (As King Henry VIII) I trust that you have settled all your affairs here.

Ms. GABRIELLE ANWAR: (As Margaret) Yes, but...

Mr. MEYERS: The King has written of his love for you. As soon as he set his eyes on you, having seen your portrait.

COHEN: In real life, the King had two sisters, not one says Retha Warnicke author of a book on family politics at Henry VIII's Court. And Warnicke notes that there are plenty of other inaccuracies.

Ms. RETHA WARNICKE (Author): If we are talking about the sister who married a king across the ocean on the continent, that was Mary Tudor but she didn't marry the King of Portugal, she married the King of France.

COHEN: This isn't a case of lazy fact-checkers. Showtime is well aware of what it is up to. They even created an online forum where history buffs meticulously and often angrily list everything that is inaccurate. The real Henry VIII had red hair, a beard, and got pretty hefty. Jonathan Rhys Meyers has brown hair and a body of a GQ model. In real life, the king's son, Henry Fitzroy died of tuberculosis in his teens. In "The Tudors," he dies much younger from sweating sickness. Michael Hirst is the show's writer.

Mr. MICHAEL HIRST (Writer, "The Tudors"): My first duty is to write a show that is entertaining. I wasn't commissioned by Showtime to write a historical documentary.

COHEN: Hurst explains that some of his script changes were pragmatic. For instance, that Margaret-Mary business. Hurst says that there already was a Mary in the show, the king's daughter who was in reality also called Princess Mary.

Mr. HIRST: I didn't want two Princess Mary on the call sheet. It is terribly confusing to everyone. You put Mary, and they say, which one?

COHEN: Other changes, Hurst said were more philosophical.

Mr. HIRST: We didn't bother to put Johnny, Jonathan Rhys Meyers in a red wig and make him fat and put a beard on just because then we'd say, oh, look. That is Henry VIII. We wanted to get closer to the spirit of the thing, to a kind of reality. And the reality was that Henry was young, virile, very charismatic, very dangerous.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Tudors")

Mr. MEYERS: (As King Henry VIII) It is settled, we are to war with France. Now, I can go play.

COHEN: Arizona State University professor Retha Warnicke says that she is concerned about programs that boil down years worth of history into just a few hours. She said that she had plenty of students that assume fictional shows are facts.

Ms. WARNICKE: They are in some sense the history lessons for the great mass of people.

COHEN: But other academics are more tolerant of the discrepancies. Ben Lowe teaches European history at Florida Atlantic University. He thinks "The Tudors" can entertain and even inspire.

Professor BEN LOWE (European History, Florida Atlantic University): I have talked with people who have watched the show that you know Google something on the Internet and try to figure out a little bit more.

COHEN: Of course, there is no way to tell for sure how often TV dramas lead to genuine education but there maybe encouraging news from Quincy, Massachusetts. Quincy is the birthplace of John Adams whose life is currently being chronicled in a series running on HBO.

(Soundbite of TV show "John Adams")

Unidentified Actor: I give you know a new delegate from Massachusetts, Mr. John Adams.

(Soundbite of applause)

COHEN: Carolyn Kinoff(ph) runs the Adams National Historical Park and says reactions to the show have been great.

Ms. CAROLYN KINOFF (Adams National Historical Park): Our hits on our website have increased. The telephone calls have increased and people are starting to plan for their spring and summer vacations and their making Quincy and the Adams National Historical Park a primary destination.

COHEN: Looking ahead, Florida might want to get ready for a new crop of historical tourists. HBO will soon be airing a drama about the 2000 presidential election titled "Recount". Wonder what the history buffs will say when they get their hands on that one. Alex Cohen, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: All right history buffs, think you know more than the average TV network when it comes to history? Take out online quiz. You can find it at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Stay with us, NPR's Day to Day continues.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.