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The Six Wives of Doctor III

November 26th, 2012 (11:49 pm)

Comparing The Six Wives of Henry VIII, made in late 1969/early 1970, with the contemporary seventh season of Doctor Who raises questions about value judgements. The Six Wives walked off with BAFTAs, no doubt deservedly so, though I haven't made any evaluation of the competition. The scripts of The Six Wives (on my acquaintance with two) are concerned with the themes of adult life, of gender relations and politics, of a society where women of high social status are diplomatic chattels or likely to be treated as political inconveniences whose lives are forfeit when their fertility challenges the king's masculine and regal potency. Doctor Who is concerned with soldiers shooting at non-human life forms, and though the forces of UNIT have their moral ambiguities they retain the fallback position of white hats. In The Six Wives, there is no operational bias towards a power-wielding side; the "word of a Henry" is good for nothing without an ability to rig the context in which it is shaped and reshaped.

In terms of design The Six Wives of Henry VIII can be surprisingly simplistic. The first episode, directed by John Glenister, has some location (or perhaps Ealing) filming, including scenes in the billowing tent complex of the Aragonese special embassy where Henry VII and his heir Arthur first greet Catherine of Aragon (a bright-eyed, auburn-locked Annette Crosbie, lovely but considerably less of a dolly-bird than Caroline John's similarly-coloured Liz Shaw). In contrast the second episode, directed by Naomi Capon, places its exteriors in the electronic television studio, with short scenes of hawking performed behind tufts of foliage against a plain cyclorama. Doctor Who placed a far greater emphasis on naturalism, perhaps because it was much less concerned with the inner lives of its characters. It's difficult not to be distracted, during Anne Boleyn, by the speckled grey wall flats which are fastened together to represent Anne's cell in the Tower of London, impassioned and cogent though Dorothy Tutin's performance is. The reliance on the vaseline-smeared lens to suggest an altered state of consciousness, whether the erotic bliss of Catherine's early marriage or Anne's visualised imagining of the executions of her supposed lovers, is a reminder that if a director found available electronic effects inappropriate for the subject, there were few other options to take up.

Doctor Who in 1970 is fast and involving by comparison with The Six Wives, where the audience is expected to commit to the actors and dialogue over long periods with little in the way of scene or shot changes. The script editing is more consistent too, though in a prestige-hungry series of individual plays the roles of the two script editors may have been devoted to different objectives than the consistency of development of continuing characters across the narrative. Nevertheless it's not clear from the writing that the Henry VIII seen crushing Catherine's last letter to him is the same man single-mindedly compressing his one-time love for Anne into cold-hearted assessment of her as a brood-mare of state. Doctor Who was wholeheartedly a series of serials rather than a sequence of plays with continuing cast and characters, and a case can be made that it does better by its regulars than its distant Tudor stablemate.

I could go on, but the compare-and-contrast exercise is an unjust one given the qualifications one has to make regarding the different programmes' expectations of their audiences. Nevertheless, when members of the irony mob start celebrating Doctor Who as 'bad television', I think of examples like those above to remind me, and them, that it isn't and wasn't, but most of the time quite adventurous, and good at it.

Also posted at http://sir-guinglain.dreamwidth.org/560159.html.


Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: November 27th, 2012 02:19 am (UTC)
Eleventh Doctor

They don't go for the 'Anne Boleyn was a Reformer removed by more conservative-Catholic elements at court when she was out of favour' theory, then.

vaseline-smeared lens... erotic bliss...

I'm never going to look at The Web Planet the same way again! (Yes, I know it was a filter not vaseline, but still...).

I'm not sure people really do celebrate (or criticize) Doctor Who as bad television any more, post-2005.

Also: value judgments about different programmes - very unPC! (My tongue is firmly in my cheek: I believe that appreciation of art is necessarily subjective, but not nearly as subjective as some academics would have us think.)

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: November 27th, 2012 08:29 am (UTC)

Or indeed that Anne was a Reformer who wanted to establish a network of charitable foundations using monastic money which Cromwell thought belonged in the Treasury...

As for Doctor Who as bad television, I was moved by a specific instance.

I'd forgotten that The Web Planet used a filter... the effect used in Six Wives reminded me of it, though.

Posted by: gervase_fen (gervase_fen)
Posted at: November 27th, 2012 10:55 am (UTC)

imdb has the winners and nominees. Keith Michell triumphs over a future Doctor, and could there be any other winner of the Shell International Award?

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: November 27th, 2012 11:12 am (UTC)

There couldn't!

The principal rival to The Six Wives seems to be Roads to Freedom, a project very much of its time.

Posted by: segh (segh)
Posted at: November 27th, 2012 05:49 pm (UTC)

I remember that the Six Wives seemed amazing at the time for its production values and classy scriptwriting. I also remember going to see the costumes and learning lessons that have been useful to me all my life about how to get effects.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: November 27th, 2012 11:15 pm (UTC)

The costumes are used very effectively. Anne Boleyn is established as the wearer a vivid poppy red dress on her first appearance in Catherine of Aragon which contrasts with the browns and greens of Henry's chamber, so it's very difficult not to notice her listening behind the corner.