Semantic Shifts: where ‘The Tudors’ resembles OEL manga

A few weeks ago I was ranting about ‘OEL manga’ and the naming of things. I’m afraid last night’s TV has taken me back there. I watched a show that purported to be about history. Of course, like all entertainment it was really about us, but it could have taken a bit more trouble to disguise the fact.

The culprit was the new season of The Tudors. I wasn’t going to watch it, honestly. The last season had me alternating between costumer-rage and fangirl stupidity, alternately throwing things at the screen and howling in protest at yet another complete and total Barbiefication of one of my favourite eras in the history of dress, and turning to chocolate at one sideways smouldering glance from Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ nastily beautiful eyes. So I knew exactly what to expect: and that was exactly what I got.

I deeply dislike the amendment of history for entertainment purposes. Not only is history entertaining enough as it stands, but saying that people won’t find it interesting unless we put it into contemporary terms is an insult. Do writers and directors and media barons really think that a mass audience can’t make an empathic step beyond their own experience to understand the feelings and motivations of others? If so, if we truly believe that only what is exactly like us can speak to us, we’re sounding the death knell of creativity, and incidentally also of diversity and intercultural understanding.

Sexing up history is nothing new, though largely unnecessary. History started out sexy. The Tudors were a lusty lot. In an era under constant threat from plague, famine and war, no television, no central heating, and lighting too expensive for most people to stay up after dark, sex was not only fun, it was one of the few ways available to most people to keep warm and forget their worries. So the fact that almost everyone in The Tudors is bonking when they aren’t plotting, killing or praying is historically accurate. But what they’re putting on and taking off to do it is completely wrong. That annoys me because clothes are as loaded with meaning as language. Visual semantics matter too.

The fact that most of the characters are so pretty is, of course, part of the sexing-up process. The modern world refuses to believe that plain people, or old people, are allowed to have sex at all, let alone be good at it, so naturally enough entertainment icons are pretty, and less perfect examples only show up as set dressing or comic relief. But on The Tudors, even a teenage shepherd high in the Yorkshire dales is a slightly scruffy stunner with a conspicuously fake birthmark painted along his chiselled jawline. (I half expected to see Goro Miyazaki’s name in the director’s slot after that.)

This was an era when a relatively high proportion of surviving children had some kind of birth defect – from minor things like harelips, wall-eyes and moles to deformed limbs or spines. A host of diseases and accidents also left their mark on the working population, and the legal system endorsed racking, lopping off limbs and blinding. Yet in The Tudors, even where street scenes include a few beggars for effect, the camera slides past them faster than a banker past a Big Issue seller.

All the pretty people have to be dressed in a way that will appeal to modern audiences. The designers don’t go quite so far as to put everyone in skintight spandex and glitter – though that would have been more honest. Instead, they treat historical clothing like a dressing-up box, as though rational development and economic, social and political trends have nothing at all to do with the things people wear.  In last night’s episode I saw Jane Seymour in a collar that would be fashionable four reigns down the timeline, and a gown made of the remnants from reupholstering a sofa in an old folks’ home, while her ladies-in-waiting wore prissy little lace hats that wouldn’t have been out of place on Michelle Pfeiffer in the eighteenth-century France of Dangerous Liaisons.

None of it was necessary. The clothes could have been closer to historical accuracy and still looked terrific. Changing lines, putting in elements and fabrics and colours that don’t exist yet because they can’t, because conditions haven’t evolved that far, makes a worldview incoherent. It just doesn’t hang together properly. Even if you’ve never studied costume, you can still tell that this line, that silhouette, that detail doesn’t fit with the rest. Eventually, the dressing-up-box approach to costume destroys the illusion of reality. It’s like that moment in Somewhere in Time, where one jarring detail pulls Christopher Reeve out of the 19th century.

Quite apart from the fact that it’s hard work to make a good-looking group of actors unattractive, Tudor dress is innately sexy. For one thing, it’s tied, pinned or buttoned together in so many ways that the possibility for sending sexual signals is endless. For another, it’s body-conscious in a way that the 21st century has forgotten. Fashion was designed to emphasise primary sexual characteristics in blindingly obvious ways. Men’s fashionable clothing had huge shoulders, bulging codpieces, lines that emphasised the breadth of the chest. Women’s bodices pushed the breasts upwards and minimised the waist, while their headdresses and hairstyles emphasised the neck and shoulders and led the eye downwards with jewels and embroidery. Colours were rich and soft, lacking the harshness of modern chemical dyes, but enlivened with truly barbaric quantities of gold and jewels. Those who couldn’t afford the real thing bought fakes – the Tudors understood artifice, display and bombast as well as we do. But there were reasons behind their clothes, and their habits, and their manners.

There are some areas where taking liberties with history for entertainment purposes is understandable, for example The Tudors‘ implied levels of casual nudity. For modern lovers, nudity is fun, but the places where it occurs are usually warm, comfortable and private. In Tudor homes, where bedrooms were often pathways to other rooms or shared by several people, where there was no heating except open fires and fuel was scarce, well-to-do people usually dressed for bed in a nightgown, a nightcap and stockings. Even with a fire burning in  the hearth, glass or horn in the windows, and heavy bed-curtains, Tudor bedrooms could be chilly places. The modern viewer doesn’t take all this into account and expects to see near-total nudity in sex scenes. That’s fine with me. No clothes at all are far more acceptable than some of the clothes in The Tudors. And besides, the actors are pretty: why hire all that delectable, well-toned flesh and not show it off?

I know very few people care whether the actors in a prime-time TV drama are dressed in ways that reflect the actual dress of the time. Audiences have always been fed glitz and glamour onscreen. Michael Curtiz’ magical Adventures of Robin Hood is no less magical because of Olivia de Havilland’s lamé wimple. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is still a great film, and beautifully shot, despite the fact that Curtiz (who also directed Casablanca) neither understands nor cares about the construction of a French farthingale.  But  with modern technology and current knowledge, it’s just as easy to get it reasonably right as it is to get it very wrong. It doesn’t have to cost any more, and the onscreen results can be stunning. Richard Lester’s magnificent Robin and Marian balances historical probability and audience-friendliness to perfection.  The Tudors, on the other hand, recalls nothing so much as the work of Dion Clayton Calthrop, a turn-of-the-century illustrator, writer and man-about town whose costume book, though very charming, is very much of its time. Why anyone working in screen costume today would choose the research, ideas and attitudes embodied in Calthrop’s work as their starting point, in preference to those of, say, Janet Arnold, is beyond me.

Of course, all this is only the wrapping. If I start talking about the liberties taken with history in the script, the lines from Wyatt written for Anne Boleyn and used as by-play in a scene between two fantasy characters, the Duke of Norfolk’s vicious remark to Mary given to another fantasy character, let alone the idea of a man with a dubious reputation being allowed to be alone in a room with a young noblewoman, the rehabilitation of Jane Rochford as a Tudor social worker, and the transformation of Jane Seymour into a screen siren more Hollyoaks than Hollywood – you see, if I start I’ll just go on.

Calling this historical drama, its clothes historical costumes, is like calling comics made by non-Japanese people in their own countries ‘manga’. The name raises the expectation that there will be some relationship to the genuine article, that the six wives of Henry VIII really did wear clothes like your granny’s sofa, that (despite this) Tudor women looked like the airbrushed sirens in Hedkandi album art. It’s not a big deal to most people, but it annoys me because I think words and labels matter. If Anne Boleyn really was a slut, she was an authentic Tudor slut. If I want to watch a modern slut getting styled, there are plenty of places in London I can do that.

Unfortunately, none of those places also give me a smouldering glance from Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ nastily beautiful eyes, let alone a look at most of his other bits. So I expect I shall just carry on watching The Tudors. Maybe I’ll find it less annoying if I re-label it titillation, or visual chocolate: it certainly isn’t history.

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