A gangster king thing

Ray Winstone is best known for portraying East End hard nuts, so he seems an unlikely choice for the role of Henry VIII. But on the set of ITV's drama, James Rampton saw the actor in a whole new light
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The Duke of Buckingham has been foiled in his attempt to lead a Plantagenet rebellion against the reigning Tudor monarch, Henry VIII. As the King interrogates the captured Duke, he taunts him by holding out his hand and showing him his regal ring. "Take it," Henry mocks, before saying with a threatening snarl, "but you'll have to kill me first." You half expect the King to add: "Come and have a go, if you think you're hard enough!"

For in Henry VIII, a gripping new ITV 1 drama, the title role is played by Ray Winstone, one of our seminal screen hard nuts. He is an actor who, since he made his debut as "the Daddy" in Scum some 25 years ago, has fashioned a career from dishing out all manner of mayhem. Remember the havoc he wreaked in, say, Nil By Mouth or Sexy Beast or The War Zone or Face? Exactly. He's one scary guy.

The quintessential East End actor is clearly absolutely delighted that he is now portraying Henry VIII. In a break between shooting scenes at Pinewood, where the film-makers have recreated the Great Hall, the Queen's bedchambers and castle corridors on sets recently vacated by The Hours, Winstone beams, "It's really flattering for me to be asked to play a king. I mean, I'm a kid out of Plaistow, and I'm playing one of the most famous kings of England. It's fantastic!"

Certainly, with Winstone in the role, there is no danger of this Henry being some sort of effete, namby-pamby monarch who minces around smelling roses, reciting poetry and strumming a mandolin. As the writer Peter Morgan puts it, "If Ray Winstone is in it, you know this drama is not going to be too stuffy and up its own arse." And according to the lead actor, "When my Henry comes into the room and says, 'I am the King of England,' I want to make sure that people hear the sound of a warrior ready for war - not some poncey bloke with a bunch of jewels on his head."

Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the seductive Anne Boleyn in this Granada production, reckons that Winstone is "a dynamic choice. He makes it immediately exciting. He puts a different slant on it because he is so unpredictable, and that brings a raw brutality to it." Well known as Merchant Ivory's muse in their exquisite costume dramas, Bonham Carter adds with a laugh that "me being 'Mrs Period Cliché' is balanced in this project by the fact that Ray is definitely not one."

Winstone undoubtedly invests the role with a simmering air of menace. One scene that looks set to grab headlines is a case in point. In the middle of a blazing row about her failure to produce a son, the enraged Henry grabs Anne and brutally rapes her. You may well find yourself watching that particular sequence from behind the sofa. As Bonham Carter says, "That was a pretty unpleasant scene, as it brought home just what a monster Henry could be."

Winstone chips in by acknowledging the King's fatal flaw. "Powerful men usually have a weakness, and that always seems to be sex." It is a portrayal that diverges from the "authorised version" of Henry' s life, and Morgan is bracing himself for attacks from purists. The writer, also responsible for The Deal, Channel 4's newsworthy drama about "the Granita pact" between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, admits that "plenty of historians will find what we have done scandalous. It was the same with The Deal - you wouldn't expect Cherie Blair to agree with everything I wrote.

"But what I'm aiming for is to stimulate greater interest in history, rather than to score points with a particular version of events. Also, when historians are up in arms, they tend to be up in arms in a tiny, self-referential community."

Andy Harries, the controller of drama at Granada, is also far more concerned with Henry VIII as drama than as historical record, and for him it is a " walk-in story". "I thought, 'Henry VIII and his six wives - can it get much better for ITV? Never mind Bad Girls - I've got a mad, testosterone-fuelled king who rampages about the place beheading his wives.'

"Once I had Ray Winstone in mind for the lead, everything fell into place. Casting him made the whole project feel very contemporary. When I said, 'Ray Winstone is Henry VIII,' the ITV executives immediately understood what I was pitching. Ray has this tremendous physical intensity. Henry was a very angry and irrational man, prone to terrible mood swings and violence."

"Irrational" scarcely does Henry VIII justice. When a friend beat him at bowls once, the King had him beheaded. "He was obviously a few marbles short of the complete box," Harries smiles. "Ray depicts that brilliantly."

Just in case we haven't got the message, Harries goes on to reveal that the drama "is partly inspired by The Sopranos. The idea of the 'gangster king' very much informs the piece. Henry had to do an awful lot of wheeler-dealing to hold on to his throne. How did he maintain power? By bunging nobles. Cardinal Wolsey [who is played in the drama by David Suchet] was famously wealthy because he diverted a large amount of Treasury funds into his own pockets. There was a lot of gangsterism in those days." Plus ça change.

Francis Hopkinson, the producer of Henry VIII, also highlights the drama's contemporary resonance. "All sorts of machinations went on in Henry's court, but the Hutton inquiry shows that things aren't hugely different nowadays. At one point in the drama, Cranmer and Cromwell bring Henry a questionable document that gives him power over Rome. We called that the 'dodgy dossier' scene."

Emphasising the modern-day feel, the producers were anxious to steer clear of period stereotypes. "So," explains Harries, "we shot it in a modern way, without any cod Tudor language. There are no 'thee's or 'thou's or 'my liege's. And there is certainly no ludicrous dancing in pantaloons!" Hopkinson stresses that "at the end of most period dramas, you want to hug the costume and set designer. But we didn't want to show off the production values; rather, we've concentrated on telling a cracking story. We didn't want to prettify the era, which was raw and tough. This is certainly not chocolate-box drama."

To underline the gritty authenticity of the production, behind the scenes at Pinewood I'm told wardrobe assistants are busily drenching Henry's underpants in cold tea to give them that credible "lived-in" look for a forthcoming love scene with Anne. Morgan takes up the theme. "Before I wrote Henry VIII, there were just two rules: no chicken drumsticks being hurled over the shoulder, and no lute music." Instead, the writer has focused on the fact that Henry is - to use that ghastly term beloved of psychotherapists - "conflicted". "He was a neglected second son, and much of his loudness and attention-seeking was down to trying to get his father's approval. That meant that he was both a brute and a victim at the same time."

Winstone explains why he believes the King was such a contradictory character. "My idea of Henry is quite mixed. I think he was a very troubled man - paranoid and psychotic at times, while charming and funny at others. This is a man who allowed two of his wives - women he loved passionately - to be murdered. At the same time, he wrote beautiful love letters, understood science and, to a certain extent, was a great ambassador. He was an intelligent, gentle, romantic man who lost his way when it came to love. He sold his soul for his country and for the duty he inherited, and from then on it became easier and easier for him to discard the women he loved."

His appetite for period drama whetted, Morgan is now moving on to tackle another celebrated era from British history with an ITV 1 series about Colditz. So, in striving for an authentic feel, has the writer again laid down golden rules about the clichés that must be avoided at all costs? Of course.

"There are two rules that are firmly in place for my Colditz drama," Morgan laughs. "I have guaranteed that there will be no cricket and absolutely no waxing of moustaches."

'Henry VIII' starts on ITV 1 at 9pm on Sunday

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