Michael Hirst

Michael Hirst

Michael Hirst brought the reign of Henry VIII to the small screen when he penned the script for TV series The Tudors, which is about to be repeated on Sony TV.

I caught up with the scriptwriter to talk about tackling a series drama for the first time, his experience on set and what lies ahead.

- The Tudors is being shown from the very beginning on Sony TV next month so for anyone who didn’t catch the series the first time around can you tell me a little about it?

It tells the story of Henry VIII, the reign of Henry VIII in the 16th century, but it’s not essentially a biopic but it is a drama that is based on historical fact - it’s much closer to historical fact that some people gave it credit for.

I did a huge amount of research before writing it and I had written the script for Elizabeth so it was a period that I knew well. Nevertheless it had to appeal, first and foremost, to an American audience; because it was being paid for by an American network, there was no ready audience in America for a programme about men in tights.

So it had to be in such a way that it didn’t feel like a museum piece and it didn’t feel like a school lesson it was attractive and the issues that it dealt with were issues that people could relate to.

What was so unique about the series was it showed Henry VIII as a young man and this seemed to puzzle a lot of people because we just have this iconic [picture, certainly we do in this country, of Henry VIII as this fat and rather terrifying older man and it was as if I was attacking this iconic figure.

But the historical Henry was described as the most handsome prince in Christendom and he came to the throne when he was eighteen - so a lot of things followed from the fact that he was a young, fit, athletic and handsome guy.  So the story initially is what does a young, fit, handsome guy do when he suddenly has absolute power?

So it follows his life and we find out what he did do with that power and, of course, he broke from Rome, married six women and became a monster in the end - he started out as an enlightened prince who was determined to do just and good things for his country and he ended up a rather squalid and angry figure who had killed around eighty thousand of his own people.

So it’s TV drama, it’s suppose to grab you as well as amuse and interest you - but if you watch it long enough you will perhaps learn one or two things that you didn’t know about English history. 

- You penned the screenplay for The Tudors so I was wondering how you got involved with the series?

I was approached by a young American TV producer and he asked me whether I was interested in turning the whole Tudor dynasty into an American TV soap opera, I had never worked in TV before and I think I just laughed.

One I didn’t know if I could write for TV and the other thing was I didn’t know whether he meant that if it was for an American audience then it would have to be dumbed down. So I asked him to send me some show that you like and the standard that he was looking at.

And he did send me lots of different shows  but they were all of The West Wing (laughs) - I understood from that that what he was saying way ‘yes you have to entertain but you can also deal with serious subjects’.

So that was a wonderful opportunity but I still didn’t know if I could do it but what I found was I fell in love with these characters and I couldn’t wait  to find out what they were going to do and how the story was going to develop. I was very invested in the series and they became very real to me. 

- The Tudors was four seasons long thirty eight episodes so how much did you enjoy being with a project that allowed you to really get to know and develop the characters over time?

Absolutely. And what it did was bring along unexpected revelations for example I had presumed that Catherine of Aragon would come and go fairly quickly, from historical memory she seemed like a dour and dull type of woman; Anne Boleyn by contrast is very alive and very interesting.

But as I was writing about Catherine of Aragon and as her character developed I found myself being obsessed by her - she is absolutely wonderful as she is a very deep character, a true Queen and a woman who suffered for her marriage and for her faith; the character lived on into the second series. But I found ways of loving all the wives, in different ways. The Tudors are in a way an extended meditation on love because at the centre of it are these relationships with women; his wives but also his mistresses.

And each of the marriages are different, they are different women and he gets older, but they are different kinds of loves that he had - writing this series gave me the chance to explore and develop and discover these different relationships, different ways of loving and different ways of being married.  

The great thing was because it was drama and because it was Henry VIII it was always extreme, most people will say ‘when you fall out of love you don’t chop the head off your wife, but it makes great drama.

I thought everyone, hopefully, could see a bit of themselves in one of the characters in the show and I know, even for me, there were a couple of characters that I identified with. But a lot of the issues that Henry had and the wives had people, women & men can relate to them because they are real and timeless issues.

It is not a museum and it is not really about men and women who lived a long time ago it’s about things that still matter and it does have a strangely modern feel to it.

- The Hans Holbein picture of Henry VIII is perhaps the image of that monarch that everyone is familiar with - middle aged and slightly overweight chap - this series paints him in a very different light and in a way that we have never seen before so what was your brief when you were writing this character? Is there anything about him that you particularly wanted to portray?

One of the reasons that Showtime were willing to pay for and develop the series was precisely  because I was going to start with Henry as a young and handsome prince with a group of equally fit looking and handsome friends.

So casting Jonathan Rhys Meyers was perfect because it just exploded that idea people had of what Henry was like. I honestly believed that Henry was born like that, fat, bearded and middle aged - but the truth was he didn’t get immensely fat until the last years of his reign.

I have always been very interested in the reformation and I wanted to explore how it came about, what it meant and the impact it had on England and English society so I was allowed to do that because I could do it dramatically and through these great figures such as Wolsey, Cromwell, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn.

So I wasn’t lecturing anyone and it wasn’t a history lesson but it does describe a really crucial time in English history through these characters and their beliefs. So I was interested in Henry as a character and where he went to and how he became a tyrant and I was interested in the England that he inherited and the one that he left behind.

- But with a project like this a certain amount of artistic license has to be taken so how do you find that balance of being historically accurate and just telling an interesting story?

I started by reading everything that I could get hold of about Henry VIII and the period and made thousands of notes about it - often cherry picking the footnotes that historian had in their books; little nuggets of information or weird revelations about characters that are not important to put in their thesis but for me were rather wonderful.

What I complied was this extraordinary collection of stories and anecdotes that you simply couldn’t make up - they were just too extraordinary and amazing - so I didn’t have to exercise too much dramatic license. I risked people not believing what I was showing them but I could quote chapter on verse about those things.

Of course it’s a drama and not a documentary so you have to compress things, stress certain things and you have to make decisions and choices you have to decide which parts of the story you are going to concentrate on.

It never felt to me that I was taking a huge and horrible leapt away from reality or the real material and of course the narrative is what it was and that is Henry’s life; those were his marriages, that’s how the reformation happened. I was just fortunate that Jonathan (Rhys Meyers) was so good in driving the role he just grabs the screen - he is beautiful and nervy and dangerous; which I think Henry VIII was too.

So I really liked that casting and I was really glad that we didn’t go down the usual path of ‘here comes old stout Henry VIII’, he almost seems like comic figure to me actually.

In the end he does become a tyrant and a very bloody character but in The Tudors he remains very watchable and fascinating and that is what drama has to be.

- How much interaction did you have with the actors over the course of the show to develop these characters?

It was the first time that I had been an executive producer as well as a writer so I not only interacted with the actors and talked to them and found out what their take on things was but I was also involved with the costumes and the designers and the crew so it was a wonderful experience for me.

I did form some very good and deep relationships with some of the actors, some of them were more interested in the historical characters than others, I would have very long session with actors talking through and altering things. I had a lot to do with them actually.

- Away from The Tudors you have also written script for Elizabeth which is another period pieces so how much are projects like this a draw for you -- or is it simply the way that it has worked out?

It’s more or less the way that things have worked out. The only two things I was good at school was English and History and somehow, cleverly, I have combined them to make a career. Once I had done Elizabeth I was offered a lot of historical material - but I always say that everything is historical.

One of the projects that I am working on at the moment is about motor racing in the sixties and I suppose you could say that that is historical too, although to me it does feel very modern.

I suppose I would say that I don’t have enough, I suppose this sounds strange, interest in the contemporary world and I find it harder to make judgements about the contemporary world as I am too busy being in it. It is wonderful for me, I suppose it’s partly an escape, but I feel that I can make more considered about historical figures.

I remember the philosopher Williams James always said ‘for a baby the world he came into was a buzzing, booming chaos’ and I look around the contemporary world and it seems like to me.

- Elizabeth was the first of your work that I saw so how did you find working with filmmaker Shekhar Kapur?

It was great and very challenging as Shekhar was never satisfied. We must have done thirteen passes at the script at one point when I said to him, it was Easter, ‘look I am going on holiday with my kids and family to a place in France and I will be back in ten days’ but he said ‘no no we can’t stop we have this momentum’ but I said ‘Shekhar lets have a little break and I will see you in ten days.

So I went out and the first morning that we were in France I went downstairs and drew the curtains and Shekhar was standing in the garden (laughs). And that is what he was like he just wouldn’t leave me alone. But one of the great things was he didn’t know who Elizabeth I was for him she was just a young woman in a really tough spot.

So he wasn’t reverential if we’d have got some like Dickie Attenborough, someone from our culture, to do a movie about Elizabeth I there is always the danger of the reverential camera and someone treating her as if she wasn’t flesh and blood or thinking too much about her iconic status. So it was great but it was exhausting and I remember my wife saying to me once ‘Who are you married to Michael me or Shekhar?’ But we are still great friends.

- You have written for both TV and film do you have a favourite?

In movies the director is god and no matter how close you are to the director and how close you work together you are not really wanted on the set - anyone who has a question on set asks the director. 

But in series TV the writer is god so this was rather a shock, but a pleasant shock, and people would ask me things - the costume designer would say ‘I have just done these costumes for Johnny do you want to see them?’ And I was treated with respect and, frankly, that was the first time in my professional career and it was wonderful.

I don’t want to stop writing for movies there are just different things about movies - I have written the script for Mary Queen of Scots which hopefully Working Title are going to do a mirror image to Elizabeth.

I am really wedded to TV series and I am working on two or three series and it’s fantastic. In the middle of The Tudors I knew that everything that I was writing was going to be made and it’s completely different to working in a vacuum which you do when you are commissioned to write a movie script because the chances of it ever getting made are very slim.

- You have touched on my next and final what’s next for you?

Well yes Mary Queen of Scot hopefully and a series on the Vikings for the History Channel in the States - that will start shooting in June in Ireland and Norway.

This motor-racing drama, which is called The Drivers, and a TV series about Madame Tussauds so yes I am reasonable busy.

The Tudors (double bill 9pm Wednesday February 1st) as well as Sony Entertainment Television (Sky 157 Virgin 193).

FemaleFirst Helen Earnshaw

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