Why Starz’s Continued Obsession With The Tudors Is A Smart Call
“Becoming Elizabeth” creator Anya Reiss doesn’t usually watch period dramas. In fact, she thought the story of Queen Elizabeth I and her Tudor ancestry had been discussed to death. So why embark on telling the story of a teenage Elizabeth? It was the discovery of a story she had never heard before: Elizabeth’s relationship at the age of fifteen with her stepmother Katherine Parr’s husband, Thomas Seymour. The relationship is debated among Tudor scholars to this day, with many claiming that the encounter never took place or that Elizabeth was assaulted by Seymour. For Reiss, who spoke to IndieWire by phone, it was “a grooming story through someone’s eyes. [being groomed].”
The Tudors have graced screens large and small since the release of the 1910 silent feature “Henry VIII and Catherine Howard.” Since then, Henry VIII and his six wives have been the subject of narrative feature films and documentaries, as well as television series. In 2007, Showtime gave Henry VIII’s court a sex appeal boost with “The Tudors” and after it closed in 2010, other networks continued the Tudor drama. In 2013, Starz released “The White Queen,” a quasi-Tudor prequel focusing on the Wars of the Roses that would lead to Henry VIII becoming king. The success of this series saw Starz greenlight two more series with tangential connections to the Tudors. “Becoming Elizabeth” is the first Starz series to bring her back specifically to Henry VIII’s child.
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But why are the Tudors still so popular today, and why is Starz committed to keeping the 16th-century royal family on TV screens? Alison Hoffman, president of home networks at Starz, told IndieWire via Zoom that storytelling is paramount. Working for Starz when “The White Queen” was in development, and after all subsequent Tudor-related series, explained that while premium channels have always embraced the opulence of historical dramas, the network saw an opportunity to focus on the female creators behind these stories, like Reiss on “Becoming Elizabeth” or Emma Frost, showrunner of “The White Queen”. While Hoffman can’t speak to specific demographics, given the success of Starz’s “Outlander,” it stands to reason that women consuming these shows are also a key reason to continue publishing these series.
For others who watch shows like these, there’s a mix of education and entertainment. That’s not to say these shows are “edutainment entertainment,” which Hoffman says isn’t what they’re after with these series at all. But for scholars or those researching history, The Tudors remain a constant on TV for the salaciousness and inherent entertainment value they offer. “The Tudors are so fascinating to people because it’s kind of a real drama because what King was married six times?” said author and historian Phillipa Vincent-Connolly.
©Starz! Movie Channel/Courtesy of Everett Collection
Due to the nature of history, most often written by men, for Vincent-Connolly, subsequent generations have the opportunity to build on pre-established content and modify it for the decade in which they live. So Anne Boleyn may have started out as a manipulator in previous feature films, but eventually became a feminist rebel played by Natalie Dormer in “The Tudors.” The same can be said for Queen Elizabeth, who audiences see as a teenager in “Becoming Elizabeth,” but who has often been portrayed in movies and television as a devoted leader who struggled between being a queen and being a wife (to paraphrase Bette Davis’ performance in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” in 1939).
“People know so much about the broad outlines of it,” said Ann Foster, creator and host of the historical podcast “Vulgar History.” So even if people don’t know what Queen Elizabeth I actually did, the plot and connection to the Tudors is often enough to keep audiences interested. But Foster explained that people now tend to forget the specific historical beats that allowed the Tudors to become mythologized in our popular culture.
“It started because the Elizabethan era and Henry VIII, to some extent, was the first time England became an international superpower,” she said. Even when Elizabeth I was still alive, William Shakespeare wrote plays about her and reinforced the belief that she was “Gloriana”, a representative of a glorious era in history. This carried over to other rulers, such as Queen Victoria, who many compared to Queen Elizabeth I as colonialism began to take hold.
There’s also a continued air of relatability with the Tudors, family and romantic drama aside. The abundance of women in power in the family – just six wives – has opened the door to many readings that connect them to the ignored, marginalized and perceived difficult women of today. Even now, audiences can relate to the women of the Tudor era in the new Tony-nominated Broadway musical, “Six.”
“Everyone who likes it always has an opinion about different wives, who they like and who they don’t,” Vincent-Connolly said. “People have always had a favorite actor who portrays Henry VIII and why they think that portrayal is particularly good. There are a lot of people and fans who want to be living room historians.”
Foster said, depending on who responds to episodes of her Tudor-focused podcast, the majority tend to be white women, ages 18 to 50, mostly in the United States. The age range is certainly beneficial for networks looking for something with broad appeal, but the emphasis on whiteness continues to be an issue when the English royal family is involved. It’s not necessarily a leap to watch something like ‘The Tudors’, with its all-white cast, and see one of the many reasons the UK press is falling for racist headlines surrounding Meghan Markle. This could be one of the main reasons why works like “Becoming Elizabeth”, or Jodie Turner-Smith’s most recent performance as Anne Boleyn for the BBC, have focused on the colorblind cast.
In the case of Reiss’ show, the character of Pedro (Ekow Quartey) was based on a real person who lived in Tudor times, but the showrunner didn’t necessarily want to focus on race. “It was never meant to be diversity, it’s a story,” Reiss said. “He’s an interesting and complex character on his own.” But it’s another way to stand out from the pack and be relevant with the times. “Broadcasters and producers will always take a different spin on the same story to accommodate our politically correct world as everyone sees it now,” Vincent-Connolly said.
Does that mean we’ll see the same handful of characters featured onscreen forever? “I don’t think we’re going there with the intention of franchising,” Hoffman said when asked if the idea of a Tudor multiverse with spinoffs and sequels was a possibility. History should be paramount and when it comes to historical figures, not all are as fascinating as the Tudors. “If you think of Queen Victoria, her story isn’t that interesting,” Foster said. “She married a man, they were in love and they had a lot of children.”
The Tudors, however, have such a storied history with many players that, as Foster explained, Starz could easily continue to branch out as Mary, Queen of Scots (originally slated to be the wife of son of Henry VIII, Edward) and thus explore the Stuarts who will inherit the throne after Elizabeth I. characters from the past will likely seem relevant again for a while.
“Becoming Elizabeth” airs Sundays on Starz starting June 12.
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