British Historical Drama Serial

The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, first broadcast by the BBC in 1970, became one of its most celebrated historical drama serials. The nine-hour six-part series went on to be shown in some 70 countries and attracted no less than seven major awards, winning plaudits both for the quality of the performances and for its historical authenticity.

Towering over the series was the gargantuan figure of Henry himself, played by the hitherto unknown Australian actor Keith Michell, who earned an award for Best Television Actor as a result of his efforts. Michell, who started out as an art teacher, owed the role to Laurence Olivier, who had been impressed by Michell while on tour in Australia and had brought him back to England in order to advance his career. The faith the BBC put in the young actor was more than amply rewarded, Michell going to extraordinary lengths to vitalize the larger-than-life character of the king.

The series was neatly split into six episodes, each one dealing with one of the six wives and tracing their varied experiences and sometimes bloody ends at the hands of one of England's most infamous rulers. The wives themselves were played by Annette Crosbie, Dorothy Tutin, Anne Stallybrass, Elvi Hale, Angela Pleasance, and Rosalie Crutchley, all respected and proven stars of stage and screen. Annette Crosbie, playing Catherine of Aragon, collected a Best Actress Award for her performance.

Michell, though, was always the focus of attention. The task for the actor was to portray Henry at the different stages of his life, beginning with the athletic 18-year-old monarch and culminating in the oversize 56-year-old tyrant plagued by a variety of physical ailments. Playing the aging Henry in the later episodes proved the most demanding challenge. Michell, who boasted only half the girth of the real king, spent some four hours each day getting his make-up on and was then unable to take any sustenance except through a straw because of the padding tucked into his cheeks. The impersonation was entirely convincing, however, and critics hailed the attention to detail in costume and sets. No one, it seemed, twigged that Henry's mink robes were really made of rabbit fur, or that the fabulous jewels studding his hats and coats were humble washers and screws sprayed with paint.

The lavishness of the costumes and settings and the brilliance of Michell and his co-stars ensured the success of the series, though some viewers expressed reservations. In particular, it was felt by some critics that the underlying theme of the lonely and essentially reasonable man beneath the outrageous outer persona was perhaps rather predictable, and further that Michell--who admitted to admiring Henry's excesses--had a tendency to reduce Henry to caricature (a fault more clearly evident in the film Henry VIII and His Six Wives that was spawned by the television series in 1972).

Whatever the criticisms, the success of The Six Wives of Henry VIII brought stardom to Michell and also did much to establish the BBC's cherished reputation for ambitious and historically authentic costume drama, consolidated a year later by the equally-acclaimed series Elizabeth R, starring Glenda Jackson as Henry's daughter.

-David Pickering

The Six Wivesof Henry VII
Photo courtesy of BBC


Henry VIII Keith Michell
Catherine of Aragon Annette Crosbie
Anne Boleyn Dorothy Tutin
Jane Seymour Anna Stallybrass
Anne of Cleves Elvi Hale
Catherine Howard Angela Pleasance
Catherine Parr Catherine Crutchley
Duke of Norfolk Patrick Troughton
Lady Rochford Sheila Burrell
Thomas Cranmer Bernard Hepton
Thomas Cromwell Wolfe Morris
Sir Thomas Seymour John Ronane

NARRATOR Anthony Quayle

PRODUCERS Ronald Travers, Mark Shivas, Roderick Graham

PROGRAMMING HISTORY  Twelve 90-Minute Episodes

1 January-5 February 1970


Trewin, J.C., editor. The Six Wives of Henry VIII. New York: Ungar, 1972.


See also British Programming; Miniseries