Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tamzin Merchant Makes The Tudors Worth Watching

Get ready for the fourth and final season of The Tudors, the multilayered portrait of Henry VIII and his multiple wives and lovers.
But this season the naughty merrie monarch must cede space --at least in the first six episodes --to his fifth wife, the impossibly young and beauteous Catherine Howard.
Remember the rhyme "Divorced,beheaded,died/divorced,beheaded,survived?"
Season four examines the second wife to be beheaded, Catherine Howard, and the sixth wife, Catherine Parr, who actually survived Henry.
Catherine Howard may have been one of two wives ordered beheaded by Henry in a fit of jealousy but unlike her predecessor Anne Boleyn is not much remembered by history.
""I sent the producers an audition tape, waited around and nothing happened for months," reports British actress Tamzin Merchant who'll surely zoom to stardom based on her definitive portrait of the impetuous and free spirited young girl.
"I thought that was it. And then when I was on holiday in the States I was suddenly told to report to Ireland where filming was about to start."
Catherine was a mere 19-year-old when Henry proposed and quickly married her after the annulment of his bizarre marriage to Anne of Cleves --contrary to history Anne was not quite as ugly as Henry said she was but. Rather the monarch was experiemcing a bout of impotency and needed an even younger wife to produce a "spare heir" to his throne.
Although she could read and write --still rare for a female of the nobility--Catherine was brought up at the household of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk where supervision was lax and started a sexual relationship with Henry Manox when she was around 16.
Merchant describes her as "free spirited. She thought going to court would be fun." Scenes in the TV series show her romping with her ladies in waiting and playing games. In another scene all the girls jump in a local river and roll around in the mud for fun.
"I think Catherine never knew what she was getting into to," says Merchant who had flown in from London (with her mother) to promote the series. CBC installed her at the Royal York hotel in an interview suite fit for a queen.
"She was a typical teenager, that was what attracted Henry. She knew nothing of court intrigue. A real breath of fresh air. And since she was so young he maybe felt she'd be an ideal mate for having another heir."
Henry was nearing 50 and weighed over 300 pounds. He suffered from a variety of ailments and had to have an ulcer on his leg drained every day. Certainly he was wearing out fast. What Catherine saw in him is problematic --he was nothing more than a dirty old man --but a powerful one.
I first noticed Merchant In 2005's Pride And Prejudice (nicely cast as Georgina Darcy) where she looked about 12."I was all of 16," she says with a laugh. Now I'm 23 but because my eyes are so wide apart I seem much younger."
You may have caught her in the 2007 American ensemble Radio Cape Cod or in 2009's Barbarian Princess.'
In the spring she graduated from Cambridge but is ambivalent about totally pursuing an acting career. Instead she has secured a spot as a writer at London's prestigious Royal Court theater. and is also writing radio plays.
Merchant praises Jonathan Rhys Mayer's charismatic portrayal of Henry VIII --Mayer lacks both the height and girth but has instead opted for capturing the essence of a man who was descending into madness as he aged --perhaps Henry's syphilis was affecting his brain. Mayer could have donned a fat suit but that would have been a caricature. But he has caught Henry's crazy tension --especially to women.
The production --I've previewed the first new episode --was shot in Ireland where the open vistas still prevail and where shooting is frankly cheaper than in England. Because The Tudors is classed as a Canadian-UK co-production two of the leads are Canadian: Lothair Bluteau as the French ambassador and newcomer Torrance Coombs as Catherine's suitor Thomas Culpepper. And one of the executive producers is the highly regarded Sheila Hockin (Queer As Folk).
Catherine's reign as queen was quickly over. Accused of adultery, she steadfastly denied any infidelities with Culpepper but later said she had been raped by Francis Dereham when only 16 which would have invalidated her royal marriage. No matter she was beheaded in 1542.
"I saw her as a Barbie doll," Merchant says. "Completely childlike. She thought being queen was like playing dress up ."
Meanwhile Merchant has already completed her next project --"It's a very Gothic version of Jane Eyre starring Mia Wasikowska which hopefully will get a release sometime this year. I have a small part as Mary Rivers."
MY RATING: ****.

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