11 January 2019 | TheLittleSongbird
Touches a high point of greatness
Have made a point a few times about the BBC Television Shakespeare being an interesting series for seeing so many talented actors and seeing the plays, familiar and not so familiar, adapted and performed relatively faithfully on the whole. Some are better than others, with not every performance in the series working and there could be issues with low budget production values and in some productions stage direction.
'The Famous History of the Life of Henry the Eighth' is one of the best of the series. One of not many performances where there wasn't anything to me that stood out as wrong, whereas even the other "one of the better" productions have one or two reservations. Also agree that it is one of the (very) few BBC Television Shakespeare productions to be much better than the play it's based on, when it comes to Shakespeare that is a near-unheard of feat. The play has interesting characters, but the story doesn't have the same amount of meat and engagement, by Shakespeare standards it's fairly dull, and even Shakespeare's language doesn't see him at his most inspired. All of these are miraculously brought to life and fully fleshed out in 'The Famous History of Henry the Eighth'.
It is one of the better-looking productions visually, being one of only two of the series, the other being 'As You Like It' (better than credit for to me but nowhere near as good still) to be shot on location so the action feels opened up and not confined. The locations have a real sense of period and you would be hard pressed to find more colourful more beautifully tailored costumes in the series than the ones here. The masque is indeed sheer magic. The use of music was lovely, couldn't question any of the placements and it is lovely music in its own right.
On a stage direction level, it is one of the main reasons as to why 'The Famous History of the Life of Henry the Eighth' is one of the series' best. It has tension, intrigue and emotion throughout, and sometimes not in an overt way. It is not only because the energy is never lost, it's never static, it is always tasteful with no pointless touches and that it never resorts to overblown excess that swamps everything else. It's also because of the subtleties and the details, big and small, where the characters are so well fleshed out (Katherine and Wolsey especially) motivations are clear and everything seems to happen for a reason and not randomly.
All the performances are top-drawer, with as others have said the acting honours going to a dignified and moving Claire Bloom and Timothy West mastering Wolsey's complex character. John Stride gets Henry VIII in personality and manner spot on, even if not the most ideal physically. Ronald Pickup is a noble Cramner and Barbara Kellerman was a pleasant surprise as Anne, alluring and never passive and by Kellerman standards the performance is pretty restrained which is great.
Concluding, wonderful and one of the best in the series. 10/10 Bethany Cox