l I don’t know how optimists manage, I really don’t know. Isn’t it a tiresome way to move around the world when your hopes are constantly dashed – by life, humanity and the railroad schedules? A constant grinding of the soul. However, pessimists made it. We go through life with our worldview being satisfactorily affirmed or delightfully overthrown. Honestly, it’s great! Join us! Low expectations are the key to happiness.
For example, if you greet me with the news that Netflix is dropping a three-part docudrama called Blood, Sex & Royalty that dramatizes all the sexiest parts of the Henry VIII-Anne Boleyn saga and documents the facts through talking heads of historians , assume the cringe-inducing, strenuous, down-with-the-kidz worst of both worlds. I expect silly reconstructions of key moments in history by actors who were embarrassed to be there, in costumes that are a notch above the quality of a school play. I expect them to spout lines typed by a monkey who watched a few episodes of The Tudors and was given a banana and an hour at a desk to do his best. I am sure there will be interviewees who try to hide their expertise and knowledge – as instructed by the producers – so as not to frighten the horses. I suppose, in short, there will be wickedness.
We will. We will! Consider my worldview wonderfully overturned and my low expectations joyfully surpassed! Blood, Sex & Royalty is great. No, it’s not Wolf Hall meets AJP Taylor (and thank goodness – who could possibly have the mental bandwidth to handle that in the year of our Lord 2022?). But the drama fragments are intelligent, lively, energetic, funny, full-blooded and kind-hearted, with almost universally brilliant performances. Amy James-Kelly as Anne is the standout, making Boleyn fresh, hilarious and believable. It is enabled and supported by a script that, like Blackadder in a minor key, manages to modernize and distill the essence of people, politics and plot in a way that shakes you up and makes you see the old story again. “King of France, patron of the arts,” she says wryly, watching Francis I behave in an inappropriate manner. “And fuck my sister.” The offer for women is quickly encapsulated. “Everywhere I looked, women were being screwed. By cheating husbands, controlling husbands, gambling husbands. Or you could be a mistress. Sewn without husband.
I’m not going to quote lines out of context anymore. I worry that they only sound smooth, when in fact – embedded in the scenes amid the explanations and expansions provided by Professors Tracy Borman and Suzannah Lipscomb, and Doctors Lauren Mackay and Owen Emmerson – they act as brilliant evocations of vast amounts of knowledge. They build beautiful portraits of the characters and all the relationships that will ultimately save or damn them as the series progresses.
For example, who couldn’t love (and yes, I’m going to quote again because I’m as villainous and unreliable as Lady Rochford), Anne’s description of the two people who would become her biggest obstacles? Especially given the brevity with which they capture the essence of the individuals and why they became such enemies to her success. There’s Cardinal Wolsey as ‘King Henry’s workwoman’, and Anne’s miniature sketch of Catherine of Aragon: ‘Commanded a whole army on horseback while pregnant. Respect.” Masterpieces of compression, both. And funny, especially in the capable hands of James-Kelly. At its best, the script is reminiscent of the scene in Shakespeare in Love, where Joseph Fiennes, as a bard, asks for the name of the boy on the street torturing mice.”Webster,” the boy says, glancing up from his work to reveal himself as the youthful incarnation of a dark Jacobean playwright. “John Wester.”
Purists will of course have plenty to complain about. Purists always do. This is Anne’s feminist interpretation, with an emphasis on her modern, egalitarian instincts (heavy use is made of her comprehensive reading and pro-Tyndale stance, happily coupled with her infatuation with Henry Percy and patient tolerance for Mary’s muck- ups). In Blood, Sex & Royalty, she’s more of a strategist than a sorceress at worst, and Henry (played by Max Parker) has been turned on for once and is not her pawn or plaything, but a man who more than once guided by his penis. he should have. While there’s a lot in there, experts – particularly of the armchair variety – will no doubt shout how much has been left out. Of course, of course, of course.
But on its own terms, it’s an absolute triumph. Warm, witty and accessible, with the factual sections and their fictionalized counterparts twisting around each other in support rather than canceling each other out or annoying alternate halves of the viewership. Optimists: enjoy, as you always do! Pessimists: do you trust me? Please try. If I may be so bold, I think you will be very pleasantly surprised.