One of our readers, Jennette, suggested we cover the 13-part biopic of Henry VII filmed by the BBC in 1972, The Shadow of the Tower. Being the resident Tudor “expert” around here, I guess it made sense for me to throw myself on this grenade.
Thing is, I have never been particularly good about keeping my Wars of the Roses history straight. I get the basics — Richard III loses the crown to Henry Tudor after being killed at the Battle of Bosworth, and Henry is crowned Henry VII. He marries the former king’s daughter, Elizabeth of York, and has a fairly benign marriage lasting a couple of decades, cranking out some heirs (one of whom is Henry VIII, who started his life as a spare), and then Henry VII gets all despotic and rather than be the king of peace and prosperity in the first half of his reign, he spends the latter half taxing the bejeezus out of his subjects in order to amass an insane amount of wealth unrivaled anywhere in Europe. And that is only the very, very basic gist of things.
The Wars of the Roses has been rumored to have been the basis on which G.R.R. Martin created the characters of Westeros, and once you delve into the history of that period, it makes Martin’s complicated plot lines seem downright logical.
After the wild success of Elizabeth R (1971), the Beeb made several more miniseries focusing on the kings and queens before and after Elizabeth I. None of them ever quite hit the mark the way Elizabeth R did, however. They always fall short in some way … either it’s the acting or the writing or the production quality, but I just haven’t managed to be as enthusiastic about the Tudor “sequels” (really, they’re prequels, but they were filmed and released post-Elizabeth R) as I am about Elizabeth R itself.
That said, the screenplay for this episode was written by Rosemary Anne Sisson, whose screenwriting credits also include one episode of Elizabeth R (“The Marriage Game”), an episode of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (“Catherine of Aragon), and 11 episodes of Upstairs/Downstairs. So, she’s pretty well versed in her history. But man, this is a hard episode to start the series off.
One of the things I dislike about the BBC docu-dramas of the 1970s is that they just dump you in the middle of things without any exposition, and since they usually have a cast of hundreds, you’re spending half the time figuring out who the hell is talking and what the hell they’re all so worked up about. I guess that’s the downside to sticking hard and fast to historical accuracy.
The Shadow of the Tower does exactly this, except it’s so much worse, because there’s so many different individuals involved and so much going on in the background or off screen entirely that it feels like you’re walking into a conversation partway through every time it cuts to a new scene.
To make matters worse, two of the principal characters, Lord Lovell, and the Earl of Lincoln more or less look alike when everything is all dark and brooding.
Thankfully, Henry Tudor is easy to spot:
As is Elizabeth of York, Henry’s future queen:
And her nitwit of a sister, Cecily:
And there’s no mistaking the grande dame of the whole show, Henry’s mother Margaret Beaufort:
There’s a whole mess of other characters who I will just gloss over because their part in the show is just to lurk in the shadows and make intrigue. I will say that after watching the first episode a second time, I was better able to follow the dialogue and catch on to who is who, but the show doesn’t make it easy.
Thankfully, critiquing the costuming is a lot easier. In a nutshell, it’s a crapshoot of authenticity. Where Elizabeth R made every attempt to remain faithful to the clothing of the period, The Shadow of the Tower sometimes hits the target pretty well, but other times just ricochets off into parts unknown. One of the things that leaps out at the viewer immediately is all. the. hair.
Once I got used to the hair and could focus on the costumes, I immediately noticed that the menswear was generally pretty decent.
The distinct lack of boots as de facto male footwear is another big plus:
However, the women’s costumes were wildly off, especially for Elizabeth and Cecily. Aside from the lack of headgear, there’s:
Elizabeth’s wedding dress is pretty nice, though:
So what did Elizabeth of York actually look like? Well, we have do have her funeral effigy preserved at Westminster Abbey, and while it’s probably not a 100% likeness, it’s better than nothing:
And the clothing she and her sister would have been wearing in the 1480s would have been more along the lines of this:
And of all the outfits shown on screen, it’s only this one that’s glimpsed for a few seconds that really stands out as appropriate in silhouette and head covering for this era (Margaret’s widow’s weeds notwithstanding):
That more or less covers the first episode. Stay tuned for Part 2!