Monday, August 04, 2008


Shouldn’t Reviewers Watch the Programmes They’re Paid To Review?

It’s no secret that I like watching TV. And, rather than be a passive viewer, I like to engage my critical faculties – sometimes to find buried treasures in a programme, sometimes to pull it apart. I do this for pleasure, but some do it for a living. One of these had appeared to be Mr AA Gill, who writes about television for The Sunday Times; after yesterday, I can’t honestly use the word “reviews”. If you’ve been watching The Tudors… Well, you’ve got one up on Mr Gill, as you might just spot if you read his latest “review”.

I grew up with a pronounced dislike of those followers of Mrs Mary Whitehouse
(“I think she was the worst thing – one of the worst things, after [Mrs] Thatcher, to happen to this country,” according to the author of Image of the Fendahl)
for many reasons, but one of those I felt most keenly was when they’d attack a programme without watching it. They’d just assume their beliefs about something to be true on the basis of, er, what they believed, rather than any evidence. Worse, they’d then use their unfounded opinions as the basis on which to order everyone else not to watch the programme, when (even when they bothered watching what they were complaining about) their own personal preferences were no reason to ban anything.

AA Gill is not Mary Whitehouse. I’ve not read anything from him advocating censorship – though, as my own special Mrs Whitehouse memorial, tender-vocabularied readers should be aware that I will later quote a satirical observation involving words and concepts that the old TV-hater would have had more than usual reason for objecting to – but it does look very like Mr Gill has followed in her footsteps by speaking from a position of self-styled authority about a television programme without watching it.

I will confess up-front that I’ve not read most of Mr Gill’s reviews. I’ve not particularly liked those I have read, but it’s quite possible that I’ve only read what he has to say on an off day, or when he’s been constructing a character for satirical effect. So I’m not making any unfounded generalisations about him; my mind is open to the possibility that Mr Gill is witty, well-informed, completely secure in his sexuality and not remotely a raging snob. On the basis of his article in yesterday’s Sunday Times, however, the one which purports to review the new series of The Tudors, I have a well-founded scepticism that he actually watched the opening episode of the second series. Or the final episode of the first series. It’s probable that he’s watched some episode of it, sometime, but I can’t rule out the possibility that he’s extrapolated all his opinions from having merely seen a trailer for the series at some point and taking a dislike to Jonathan Rhys Meyers looking a bit flouncy.

What’s the dead giveaway? That, set amongst the fear that Friday’s Sixteenth Century soap opera features men who make such effort to have sex with large numbers of women that they must be a bit gay, the series is spoilt by having Sam Neill in it. So, in a three-paragraph review that breaks down roughly half about the frocks and half about his catty dislike of a particular actor, there’s no evidence that he’s watched the programme. To clarify; going on about the outfits could have been picked up from the trailers and the glossy magazines. But making the key part of a review going into one about Mr Neill poses a much bigger evidentiary problem.

Now, as it happens, I have a fairly similar view of Mr Neill’s screen talent to that of Mr Gill. He was surprisingly bland in The Omen III, and he hasn’t matched that peak in anything I’ve seen him in since. I have a vague half-memory of Tom Baker being very rude about him, though not as strongly as that of his magisterial put-down of Jeremy Irons (that he looks wonderful and would have made a marvellous silent movie actor, but that then he opens his mouth and you fall asleep). So I’m not disagreeing with Mr Gill out of some knee-jerk fan-worshipping loyalty to Mr Neill. My problem here is much more simple.

Sam Neill isn’t in it.

This wasn’t obvious to Mr Gill. If he’s watched the series, I can’t imagine how. The absence of Sam Neill is obvious to anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the opening episode of The Tudors’ second series, which doesn’t star Sam Neill, or with the final episode of the first series, in which Sam Neill’s then character Cardinal Wolsey died, or with the history by which the series was nominally inspired, in which Cardinal Wolsey was dead (though probably not in the way depicted in The Tudors) by this point in the reign of Henry VIII. So, though I’m not violently opposed to some lazy git scamming Mr Murdoch, wouldn’t Mr Gill have been more polite to his readers and more protective of his reputation to write about The Tudors by, you know, watching it?

The Tudors – Filth, Fun or History?

I watch The Tudors, though I think it’s nonsense, probably because I just have something of a predilection for history even when it’s as garbled as this. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is a bit weaselly for me (he was better as more of a weasel in Gormenghast), but quite impressive at times as the young Henry, and Peter O’Toole’s Pope Paul III is fabulous – already far more entertaining in one episode than Sam Neill was in ten – and it’s entertaining, but schlocky.

It has its problems. For something that so desperately wants to follow the expensive ’80s American soaps – The Tudor Die-Nasty – it can move incredibly slowly. That’s the problem with stripping out all the fiddly details from history, but still keeping to the rough outline across the multiple ten-hour series you’re milking: the first enables you to tell a fast, dumb story, but the second slows it right down again. Someone who watched the first few hour-long episodes of the first series, missed the rest, and comes back on Friday will be going, ‘What? He’s not managed to divorce his first wife yet?’ There was more sex, plotting, history and – incredibly – narrative speed in I, Claudius, made entirely in the studio three decades ago for a fraction the budget, because it let the characters and the story lead it.

What replaces the historical details, character development and story in The Tudors is, of course, the sex: pretty young men with silly stick-on beards and handsome young women with silly stick-on bodices. Lawrence Miles has suggested that the programme can be boiled down to Anne Boleyn gasping, “Cum on my tits and abolish the monasteries!” and though that line may have been considered too vulgar even for the comedy sketch show he submitted it to, and will doubtless both appal my readers and get my blog blocked by my local library’s ‘stern peering over glasses’ software, I’m afraid it’s true.

The other problem I have with the series is its particular line of bias. Pretty much all of reported history has its own slant, but this is going a bit far. Richard suggests that the programme may as well have a sign on it saying ‘Sponsored by the Estate of Katherine of Aragon,’ so holy, virtuous and badly treated does she appear. I have an even more basic historical objection: as it’s supposedly “The Tudors”, rather than ‘Henry the Shagger’, I’d have liked them to start with the founder of the Tudors as a ruling dynasty, young Henry’s father, Henry VII. Why didn’t they? Well, he’s not as famous; he doesn’t have all the wives*; and he’s far more difficult to make look like a nice guy. You don’t have to be a Richard III revisionist (though I am, rather) to regard Henry Tudor as a murderous usurping git. He executed and otherwise persecuted loads of people who’d fought for Richard – the legal king – through the intriguing legal trickery of declaring after the fact that he, Henry, was King before the fact of the Battle of Bosworth, so the people fighting him were traitors and rebels. And he was far more ruthless than even Richard’s sternest detractors say Richard III was in removing rival claimants to the throne: most of the others with a claim were alive and free under Richard, but sentenced and executed under Henry. Not that it was difficult to find rivals with better entitlement to the crown than Henry’s laughably distant and complicated one. Technically, Henry Tudor was barely closer to the throne than you or I, dear reader, so it’s no wonder he had to slaughter so many people in the way. So, in all, I’d have loved to see how they made him a soap leading man. He could have been a J.R. for the Noughties. After all, Ian McKellen’s Richard III is one of my favourite films – it’s fiction.

A hat-tip is due, by the way, to a friend of mine who read Mr Gill’s review yesterday and pointed it out to me in an e-mail headed “oh what a howler!” He has, however, asked me not to mention him. In case this starts a witch-hunt, he doesn’t work for The Times.

*Two, according to Stephen Fry. That QI’s got a lot to answer for.

Update: Lawrence asks me to point out that the line was in fact
“Come on my tits and dissolve the monasteries.”
I was, of course, unbelievably dim not to have remembered that, but readers anxious to know why this is funnier (which it is) can e-mail me for an explanation.

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All the above is true, but what really provoked my ire was the absurd pure historical falsification of making Thomas Tallis have a (ultimately totally inconsequential) gay love affair with some non-descript noble who eventually cops it to the plague, despite there not being a scrap of historical evidence to suggest he was that way inclined. Even portraying Shakespeare as gay (and they probably will when it gets round to it) would be more credible.

I tried to rationalize it by thinking that make the series' writers were trying to make some sort of serious point - 'anyone from that time could have been gay, but we'll never know' - or even a less serious one - 'they still had gays back in the middle ages, you know' - but eventually i concluded that it was, much like a totally inconsequential scene of Henry masturbating that started one episode, just put in to ramp up the sauciness of the series.
I thought Neill's Wolsey was pretty good.

But yes, lets have some pro-Yorkish revisionism. I tried to suggest this at the after show Q&A when we had Kenneth Branagh's excellent Richard III at the Crucible in Sheffield, but my question - why are you bringing this Lancastrian propaganda specifically to Sheffield? - wasn't taken. As a Lancastrian by birth, adopting Yorkshire, I am quite divided by all this.
I'll confess a professional interest in this matter, I'm also a TV critic.

The fact is that The Tudors was not being pushed as a highlight by the BBC's press department and, as far as I'm aware, no screeners were issued for it.

Furthermore Gill couldn't possibly have watched it during its broadcast and still have made his deadline.
Thanks, all, and apologies for the late reply! Leo, you’re probably right (and I’ve read many, many arguments over Shakespeare’s sexuality) – it’s all about sex rather than serious points, as last week’s hilarious visual entendre about the royal jewels made clear. Joe, that sounds fab, and it was clearly a plot that your question wasn’t called. Next time, picket ;-)

Mik, thanks for the comments from your own experience, but I still can’t let Mr Gill off. I’ll take your better-informed word that no preview discs were issued for The Tudors, but it’s not true that the series wasn’t being pushed as a highlight by the BBC: masses of trailers; a coveted Radio Times front cover; and, er, plenty of material from the BBC press department. You also say that “Furthermore Gill couldn't possibly have watched it during its broadcast and still have made his deadline.” Two questions arise from that. First, which print section of the Sunday Times carries his reviews? Because, by definition, large sections of a newspaper carry news from the previous day, so unless it’s one of the glossy bits then surely an article written Friday night can make it to press for Sunday morning. Second, and more importantly, is it really the case that a professional reviewer who doesn’t get a preview should then just make it up? And to do so without doing the most basic research of, say, checking that characters dead at the end of the previous season months before haven’t suddenly returned to life? “Professionals” may think Joe Public at home doesn’t spot these things, but we do. Sorry – it doesn’t matter whether he had a screener and used it as a beermat instead of watching it or if he just didn’t bother checking what had happened in the previous season / history, Mr Gill is still shockingly sloppy.
Oh, and Leo, slipping an unfounded hint that some historical character may have been bisexual or at least gay-for-sponsorship… It might be irritating, but at least it makes a change from all the many, many historical characters who loved people of their own sex and whose sexualities are invariably airbrushed from any ‘historical drama’. Top personal dislike right now: The 300, in which the very, very heterosexual Spartans triumph over their slightly gay opponents. Which as a depiction of the Army of Lovers is on a par with a Nelson Mandela biopic in which he’s the Great White Hope who nukes all the evil black people – both tasteless and pointless.
One is done by the Beeb, the other by Hollywood. I agree that the historical airbrushing is disgraceful, but almost equally disgraceful is the deliberate sensationalisation and sexing-up of history. Still, Tallis or no Tallis they've managed to work in a new gay character by episode two of the new series; soon it'll be accused of being overly PC..
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