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Starkey - loving and/or loathing Henry?
on 27 April 2009
David Starkey weighs in again with a captivating, dazzling account of the great monster. It is, I think, Starkey's best work, timed to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII's accession in 1509.
The great irony is that Starkey once espoused a republican line (in a television studio debate on the future of the British monarchy shortly after Princess Diana's demise). He subsequently made monarchy his life's work, and appears both magnetized and repelled by it.
It's a masterpiece of modern historical docudrama, managing to retain freshness despite the (over)familiarity of the topic. How DOES the Puckish historian do it?
First, brilliant visual use is made of primary sources. With exquisite calligraphy (Secretary Hand with some Chancery Cursive thrown in, unless I'm much mistaken) flowing across the screen, and actors peering with amused, sardonic, or agonised faces into camera, the words of such contemporary eyewitnesses as George Cavendish (Wolsey's servant) and Eustace Chapuys (devoted supporter of Katherine of Aragon) come alive. Of course it's WORDS that are important, so that calligraphy is a visual imperative.
Second, there is the charisma of Starkey himself. He's everywhere! In libraries and archives, and of course in all the prestige locations - sometimes only to deliver a sentence or two. E.g., Avignon, Westminster Hall, St Peter's Rome, etc. etc. Gosh! Gives the European perspective to the Henry VIII story and puts us, the audience, in the locales. And Starkey's unique accent, as he struggles to square his conflicting attitudes about the monarchy - or trying to contain loathing for Henry? - makes for some strange articulations: "EU-ropp" "LODG-ik." There is also that huge coat, in which Starkey, for all his looming intellect, looks vulnerable.
I too have some conflict, because despite Starkey's idiosyncrasies, I like him. He shows both anger and understanding at Henry's trajectory from shining slim Prince, coarsened by his divorce from Katherine of Aragon, through to monstrous, murderous tyrant.
Starkey has said he feels he will never exhaust Henry VIII as a subject. In this marvellous series, he certainly provides new perspectives.