This is a series of six individual plays that focuses upon each of the six wives of King Henry VIII of England. Written by six different playwrights, they are uniformly excellent. While the production values are not high, that is because these plays were part of a televised series for which there were budgetary constraints. Although the makeup is noticable, the sets are uninspired, and the lighting is harsh, the costumes, however, are gorgeous. More important, the acting is superb.
King Henry VIII is played to perfection by Keith Michell. He has set the standard by which all others in the part will be judged, and he is the linchpin around whom the entire series revolves. He plays the young, athletic, erudite, golden king in the first tape, and the viewer watches him age and deteriorate throughout the entire series, until he finally becomes the sore riddled, morbidly obese, self absorbed, tyrannical hulk of his later years.
Each one of the six wives has her own unique story. The plays tell that story, each a first rate drama unto itself that segues into the next one seamlessly. All the queens are portrayed by very talented thespians, and the supporting cast is superlative. All in all, this series provides a fully absorbing historical drama that should not be missed. It is through the story of each of the wives that one is able to see England transform itself from a catholic country to a protestant one. It also provides a birdseye view of the political intrigues that fueled the Reformation.
"The Six Wives of Henry VIII" is the original BBC series of six 90 minute plays chronicling the reign and marriages of England's King Henry VIII. Each of the six plays or segments, "Katherine Aragon", "Anne Boleyn", "Jane Seymour", "Anne Of Cleves", "Catherine Howard" and "Catherine Parr," is written by a different author. The series was released to great popular and critical acclaim in 1971 and televised on PBS' Masterpiece Theater. This is a three-disc DVD boxed set, with two 90-minute teleplays per disc (one per spouse). Keith Michell is outstanding as the multiple-married monarch. From a boisterous, athletic, handsome Hal, at the time of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, (Annette Crosbie), the superb Michell, and make-up, transform the king before our eyes to a porcine, tyrannical, and sickly ruler. Although each drama is limited in scope due to time restrictions, the monarch's personal and political reasons for selecting and/or rejecting, (or beheading), his spouses are depicted to some extent.
"My, you ought to seen old Henry the Eight when he was in bloom. He was a blossom. He used to marry a new wife every day, and chop off her head next morning. And he would do it just as indifferent as if he was ordering up eggs." Thus Mark Twain describes our protagonist in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." As this series demonstrates, Henry was not quite the womanizer he is reputed to be. He was married to Katharine of Aragon for over twenty years and had just a few mistresses before this - unusual for a prince. He waited years to physically consummate his relationship with Anne Boleyn, and remained faithful to her until marriage.
Each of the actresses who play Henry's wives was able to find the core of her historical character, her queen, and lend the woman an air of dignity and individuality. Annette Crosbie is magnificent as Katherine of Aragon, the first wife. Her role is the largest as her relationship with Henry VIII was the longest. Dorothy Tutin is a most credible Anne Boleyn, but little time is spent on her very romantic courtship by the king. Most of Anne's story is focused on the role her marriage played in Henry's divorce and the split with the Catholic Church, which sets the stage for the English Reformation. Anne Stallybrass is Jane Seymour, who is extremely important in Tudor history because she is the only wife who gives Henry a male heir. He always said he loved Jane the best and was buried beside her. I wonder if she was so favored because she played such a small part in her husband's life, not only time-wise - she died from puerperal fever after only seventeen months of marriage - but because she was a sort of "homebody." After some minor political meddling, Jane was warned by the king to stay away from politics, and reminded of her predecessor's fate. She learned her lesson and no longer interfered in the monarch's affairs. Elvie Hale is Anne of Cleves, the most politically astute of Henry's wives, and certainly the one with the best survival skills. She was glad, ultimately, to be cast-off and allowed to keep her head. Catherine Howard, Henry's "blushing rose without a thorn," is played to the hilt by Angela Pleasence, and her's is a terribly tragic tale. And Rosalie Cruthley plays the part of the brilliant and intellectual Catherine Parr extremely well. She was fortunate to become aware of a plot against her before she met the same end as Queens Anne and Katherine. The supporting cast is also noteworthy, especially Bernard Hepton as Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Wolfe Morris as Thomas Cromwell, and Verina Greenlaw as Princess Mary.
I think, overall, that this is an excellent production, although not perfect. There are some silly errors that could have been prevented with more attention to detail, like visible microphones. It is also evident the quality of technology we take for granted today was not available in the early 1970's. Thus, the DVDs are not very good. In fact, I would recommend that you purchase the VHS edition, if you have a DVD/VHS player. The DVD set is much more expensive and the options one usually expects with DVD, like the scene index, are not offered.
on August 2, 1999
I'm surprised that none of the reviews prior to this one mentioned Keith Mitchell's exceptional performance as Henry VIII. You saw him portray Henry from his youth when was a handsome, athletic, scholarly and pious prince to his later years as an obese, repugnant, evil and diseased monarch. You cannot believe that this is the same person, as his evolution goes from one extreme to the other. This transition could not have been carried out by a lesser actor.
I subtract only one star for the low quality of the production itself, but the acting was superb by Mitchell and the ladies that portrayed his six queens. Many of these actors are famous within the British theatre but unfortunately not as well known as some of our Hollywood stars. They should be recognized for their fine efforts, including Dorothy Tutin. She gave the most haunting performance of Henry's second wife, Anne Bolyen, who was executed on trumped up charges of adultery so Henry could marry Jane Seymour, his third queen.
This series truly succeeds in showing what a sick and evil monster that Henry VIII was. He executed so many for such minor offenses and he committed so much evil to beget a male heir. You can almost breathe a sigh of relief when he dies, almost as if you, yourself are spared from the executioner's block.
I must also highly recommend the companion series, "Elizabeth R", about the life of Queen Elizabeth I. She was the only child he had with Anne Boleyn and her reign was the most illustrious in English history. This six part series is also available from Amazon.com.
on November 1, 2000
The BBC really know how to produce great drama , and this series was amongst the best . The idea of having different authors to produce each of the episodes or plays , whilst keeping the same actors , was an inspired one , as it keeps the series fresh and interesting. Keith Mitchell truly is the definitive Henry VIII (not the only time he's played this role) , and it's difficult to see how anyone else could carry off the role with the same style. For anyone interested in British history , or historical drama , this dvd is a must , as although the series rarely deviates from the same few locations , you certainly get a good feeling of what it must have been like to live in Tudor England. I really cannot rate this drama series too highly , and if you too enjoy it , I would recommend Elizabeth R which was produced in a very similar style (also by the BBC) and brilliantly acted out by Glenda Jackson amongst other great British actors.
on July 31, 2001
The Six Wifes of Henry VIII, while showing some substantial acting capabilities, must be view in poor video and audio quality. It is as if the DVD was made from a poor VHS. Technical difficulties arise if you wish to start or stop the DVD from any particular point. This is simply not possible. Even finding a particular Queen/wife is difficult. The technical production of this series of DVD's is poor at best. Knowing the the lack of video/audio quality in this production, I would not have spent the monies in this direction although I did enjoy seeing this series once again.
on April 1, 2000
I have just read the review of someone from London who finds Henry VIII & his Six Wives appalling. I had to disagree. True, the sets are less than perfect, but since this was a television series on a limited budget, one can let that point go. The acting, costuming and historical accuracy are beyond question. This is a must for anyone remotely interested in history. It is thanks in part to this series that I decided to become a History teacher.
on December 29, 2000
I won't comment on the landmark TV production -- it remains as fresh and engrossing as when I first saw it 30 years ago. The big disappointment here is that BFS Video has chosen to squeeze the series onto 3 single sided DVDs -- over 2 1/2 hours of video per DVD. The result, sadly, is that the picture quality is compromised by compression artifacts that reduce it to VHS quality. Compared to (say) "I, Claudius", of similar vintage but presented on 2-sided discs, this transfer is really below par. If you don't have this series, get it, as you'll enjoy it regardless of the quality issues. If you have it on VHS, stick with this, as the DVD is not worth it.
on October 3, 2006
Isn't it amazing how superb acting, solid writing, and sumptuous costumes can still stand alone? Each of these 90-minute dramas is a treat in and of itself, but watched successively, they draw the viewer into a world long gone. The title of the collection is "The Six Wives of Henry VIII," and each drama is focused on one of Henry's wives, but the genius of this undertaking is keeping the astounding Keith Mitchell, who will always stand as the definitive Henry, as the king throughout the series. He believably plays Henry from a beardless 17-year-old to a raddled old man and shows Henry in all his glory. He changes the most physically during the Catherine of Aragon episode, but he continues to evolve throughout the drama. The supporting characters are so well done- well, I could literally write about this drama for days. If you are at all interested in Tudor-era history, this video collection is a must-own.
on May 18, 2007
I never let my graduate degrees in history spoil my enjoyment of historical drama, both on screen and in novels. True, I could pick nits in chronology and other areas but that would spoil the fun. So I watch them, or read them, and just plain enjoy most of them.
This one is a standout. Although it is impossible to show an entire reign in 90-minute segments, each of these six dramas does a great job of showing significant areas in the lives of Henry and his six wives. We see Henry grow from youth (but with an unfortunate wig) to old age -- his intellectual prowess in theology, languages, music; his physicality and athletic feats. In spite of his genuine intellectual gifts, however, he was erratic, temperamental, inconsistent, vain. Given the scope of events during Henry's reign, it is often difficult to realize how short his life was. He became king at 17, married Catherine of Aragon at 18, and died at 56.
I am always amazed at how well the British do these historical dramas, especially their ability to find excellent actors who can be made to look very much like the people they portray, down to details of clothing and jewelry seen in portraits.
Keith Michell is superb as Henry VIII -- but over the top? Well, it's an accurate portayal. Henry himself was over the top in everything he did, whether debating theology, coping with ambitious couriers, eating and drinking, in dress, chasing women, you name it -- a true loose cannon in every sense. The six wives are very good too, with Annette Crosbie a standout as Catherine of Aragon. The casts are full of wonderful character actors. The late Patrick Troughton, who played the scarily cold and ambitious Duke of Norfolk, is a favorite of mine. I first saw him as the scatty Second Doctor and didn't realize how good an actor he was until I saw him in other roles.
The stories themselves are well written, although I thought the one about Anne Boleyn dwelt too long on grisly torture scenes and her imprisonment and execution. It was probably also a little difficult to write about Catherine Howard, since we don't know enough about her to know whether she was motivated by lust or fear of not producing an heir or simply not being well enough educated to hold her own in Henry's court. She was also very young, probably not 21 yet when she was executed. It would have been interesting to show that Anne of Cleves survived Henry, living happily and peacefully in England for the rest of her life, long enough to see his daughter Mary crowned Queen.
The reason I didn't give this DVD set a 5-star rating is that it includes as an extra the soap opera-like episode about Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne, apparently filmed later. Mary was Henry's mistress before Anne, but she didn't last long. This was a bad choice for an inclusion and adds nothing to the series other than bad writing, a lot of nudity and sex, and poorly cast characters. It would have been far better to leave it out and include interviews with the actors or other material about the making of the series.
All things considered, however, I would highly recommend this set to anyone who loves lavish historical drama.
on February 21, 2007
Because the quality of this series widely from play to play (each was written by a separate author; this teleplan was used again in "Elizabeth R" to a rather more unified overall effect), I'll break my review down disc by disc.
Disc one, unfortunately, gets the series off to quite a dismaying start. Annette Crosbie was very well cast, and the opening scenes were absolutely engaging ... unfortunately, a good dozen or more years are entirely skipped over, while an ugly and annoying montage sequence of dreamy 70s filtered fantasy dancing stretches ad nauseum between romance and disillusion. What a shame and a waste - to simply leave out the central years of Henry VIII's marriage with Katherine of Aragon. Nothing at all new was folded into the first play, and that was disappointing. The second play on the disc is Ann Boleyn, and its script is rather more engaging, though - oddly enough - the noticeably awful set design from episode one is really magnified to shocking proportions here. (I know the budget was low, but we had low budgets in high school and did not resort to rendering brick walls by way of dipping sponges in paint and pressing them to soft flats.) Distracting, and just awful! Just as distracting: I am sorry, but Dorothy Tutin was by far too old for the role of Ann Boleyn. This suspended my ability to be lost completely. Fortunately, the third act of Ann Boleyn is gripping enough to (barely) overcome this failure in window-dressing and casting, and I realized the next disc might redeem the series.
Did it ever. Jane Seymour has never interested me as a historical figure, but the third episode was entirely absorbing. Keith Michell comes into total ownership of his role, no longer saddled with a pageboy wig and the task of playing twenty years his own junior. Anne Stallybrass is so convincing and fully realized in the role of Jane, the short-lived "favorite" is rendered fascinating. The somewhat dated sound design, using a synthesized heartbeat to punctuate the action, actually works - very well. Production design is vastly improved at this point, including more outdoor scenes as well. Moving into Ann of Cleves, we get a tour de force not only of fantastic casting and performances, but also of historical fiction at its brilliant best. The relationship as here written is entirely believable, and yet not based on established history. I think this is the best play of all six, simply for exemplifying the finest melding of entertainment with history. There are moments of absolute pathos right next to scenes of intellectually satisfying conjecture. Absolutely wonderful!
Disc three includes Catherines Howard and Parr, both perfectly cast and again beautifully balanced. I was excited to see a certain minor but very real strain of bloodthirst in the Rose Without a Thorn - what a dimension to include, and how very well Angela Pleasance handles it! She was a marvel of everything Catherine Howard is said to have been - both foolish and conniving, naive and (unexpectedly) terribly intelligent. It was a pleasure to see a smart Catherine Howard for a change, and the flaws which were her downfall are portrayed probably more believably than in any other fiction I've read or watched where she appears. Rosalie Crutchley, too, delivers a performance as Catherine Parr which brings her page in history authentically and credibly to life. When one is reading a history of Henry's wives, the tension often flags by the time we reach Parr. The writer of this episode was clearly not so bored - and this play may be one of the most harrowing.
As to the bonus material, there was not an abundance - and the inclusion of "The Other Boleyn Girl" was a miscalculation. It was so bad as to make disc one an enviable memory - and, indeed, I'm considering purchase of the older, non-BBC version of this series, simply because it does not include this particular "bonus". Stylistic choices are all very well, but right now, with the proliferation of Reality TV, I get quite enough disingenuous personal monologues delivered straight to a camera. Badly cast, badly costumed, uninterestingly designed overall, and embarrassingly written above all (the source material is no better), this lion's share of the bonus disk appears like a naked emperor next to the series itself - which, by and large, is pretty well clad by comparison.