An interview with Pete Morgan, screenwriter
How do you go about adapting such a huge chunk of history?
It's not that big a chunk of history. Henry's life right up until he meets Anne Boleyn was actually relatively unproblematic. For 22 years he was happily married to Katherine of Aragon and that would have involved a lot of balls, the dancing and him being a renaissance prince! But we had Ray Winstone and I thought we should start with a problem. Ray does conflict so well that, for me, the drama should begin where the real drama in Henry's life began -- when he meets Anne Boleyn. It's only 21 years from the time he meets Anne to his death.
What was your main source of research?
A lot of books! There were also a lot of discussions with a team of dedicated researchers and author Alison Weir. But I wanted to write a story where I wrote it first and then people told me what I was getting wrong, rather than me getting hung up on the facts. It didn't want it to become a 'documentary.' I just wanted to make it compelling and dramatic.
There's really no bad time to tell the story of Henry VIII, although I was initially resistant to the idea. But then I thought that nobody had ever really done 'the Henry story.' I mean, very few people know that Henry was the second son, that his older brother should've become king but he died of tuberculosis. Henry was the forgotten son really, a bit neglected, which is probably why he's such a larger than life character. All historical books and television documentaries seem to focus on his many wives, which is no doubt an amazing story, but I really wanted to tell the story of Henry and use the wives as a linking device.
What's your 'take' on Henry and Anne, who are both classically portrayed as nasty pieces of work?
I truly believe that for every negative adjective there is a positive adjective that is equally true. Yes, Henry was arrogant but he was also vulnerable. He was violent but he was also tender. Henry was not just a man of his head but also of his heart and of his belly and of his libido. He had every human flaw we all have but in glorious Technicolor, which is why people love him so much. I think Anne is the way she is because she's been hurt by love before and is frightened, and King Henry is the way he is because he's desperate [for a son], and in the middle of it all, they fall madly in love.
What makes it an amazing love story is the effect it had on England. I know that it's not entirely down to Anne that we are a Protestant country, but there's no doubt that she was the engine in it. The fact that the King of a Catholic country fell madly in love with this woman and needed to break with Rome in order to marry her is one of the principal reasons why we are not a Catholic country today. There were people saying that she was only with him to be Queen, which wasn't the case at all. I think she was frightened by rejection again after her first heartbreak, so for Henry to marry her proved his love entirely. She craved that assurance. I think a lot of people can relate to that and I really hope that people are moved by watching this story as much as I was researching it.
Did you write the script with Ray Winstone and Helena Bonham Carter in mind?
Well, I had already written a rough script but I went and spoke to Helena, and the fact that she didn't tell me to 'sod off' meant that I started to write the subsequent drafts more with her in mind. Ray was absolutely who we were going to go with straight away -- in my mind, there is no one else who could play Henry VIII today. He was essential to the whole project. With Helena, I really don't feel that there is another actress of the right age who is powerful enough to hold the screen with Ray. His extraordinary screen presence and charisma would have blown any other actress off the screen. Despite being so petite, Helena certainly punches as much screen clout as Ray!
Do you feel you have unearthed something different or controversial in this adaptation?
I hope that this has been a more searching psychological study of Henry than any which have been done so far. His father had only one request and that was for him to have a son. Henry was constantly haunted by his 'duty' and what he 'should' do. He tries to jump through all kinds of hoops but he was essentially very unlucky, and then became desperate ... and I hope people will see that vulnerable side in our story. We focus on the man rather than the King. I also focused more on Henry being a victim of his father's commandments and his relationship with Cardinal Wolsey. I like to think that the subplots with the Duke of Buckingham and Robert Aske will be new to viewers -- I certainly can't think of them having been explored before.
Has this tempted you into writing about any other area of history? What other areas in particular fascinate you?
I'd really love to do the Plantagenets, from Henry II right through to Richard III. Saying that, I understand how difficult that would be to do, as I know how much hard work it was putting Henry VIII together! But I think people enjoy dramatized history on television and our history is more bloodthirsty and vivid than one could ever imagine.
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