To some, the idea that Ray would take on the role of Henry VIII almost beggared belief. It was as if Quentin Tarantino had announced an adaptation of a Danielle Steele novel. The shock was perhaps understandable too, for nowhere in Ray’s career to date had he suggested he had ever dreamed of doing a costume piece, let alone playing one of England’s most beguiling monarchs in history, who to this day, continues to fascinate Britain, centuries after his death.
People remain fascinated by the destruction Henry often left in his wake during his extraordinary reign. From the moment Henry Tudor cast aside his first wife, the faithful Katharine of Aragon, for the bewildering and determined Anne Boleyn, he sets himself on course for a series of disastrous marriages and violent conflict, both within the population and the church, which left England reeling while its complex and charismatic King turned from handsome playboy to a bitter invalid desperate for a son and heir to the throne.
Certainly the casting process was the first thing that got Henry VIII off the ground, says producer Francis Hopkinson. ‘We had been working with Ray on Lenny Blue, when someone said, “Imagine Ray as Henry VIII,” and it just fit. And so we started looking for a script. If you ask people who they would like to see as Henry VIII, they don’t know. But straight away most people can see why he was a brilliant choice. He seemed to capture all those facets of Henry. And because he’s a big star, and you could see he was going to bring a different perspective, and even though it’s true that there were some people who didn’t like the idea of him in the role, I think their objection was purely down to the fact that he wasn’t posh.’
Some people, he continues, ‘expect their kings to speak like the Royal Shakespeare Company, but I find it a bit depressing that some people still have that view. The RSC went through a seismic change in the 60s. People with northern accents were appearing on stage and people objected to it, but they came around. I’m a bit startled about that sort of snobbery still existing, but it’s only among very few people. And, besides, they can’t quite argue with the fact that nobody knows exactly how anyone talked back then, anyhow. Henry VIII is the greatest story in English history: it’s a love story, a story of an extraordinary character and a story that changed English and European history, and, arguably, the history of the world. There are so many conflicting stories about Henry, although, in the end, all you can really say for certain is that he had a psychotic temperament and had a lot of people killed, including two of his wives.’
Despite the criticism, both Hopkinson and screenwriter Peter Morgan were determined that Ray, without doubt, should play the part, and Helena Bonham Carter should be Anne Boleyn. What happened, Morgan remembers, was that ‘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.’
There were the other critical objections, such as why on earth would anyone want to retell the story of Henry VIII again, when it had been done so adequately, so many times before. But as Morgan defends, ‘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 have become king but he died of tuberculosis. Henry was the forgotten son really, a bit neglected, which is probably why he was 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.’
Strangely enough, though, when the project was first announced in March 2001, two years before it went into production, The Guardian’s media correspondent Matt Wells reported that Granada Television had commissioned Alan Bleasdale, to pen the drama, and although Ray was at that point already attached, it seemed Bonham Carter wasn’t. The only actresses mentioned as possible candidates to play two of Henry’s wives were Anna Friel and interestingly enough Ray’s Nil by Mouth co-star Kathy Burke. But, then again, actors and actresses often get linked to projects that either don’t come to anything, or the stars in question, don’t end up doing, for a number of any unexplained reasons. There was, however, an explanation as to why Bleasdale later left the project. It was apparently because his idea to begin the series with Henry arriving in Hell was rejected.
With or without Bleasdale writing the script, Ray was still enthusiastic. ‘It’s a fantastic part for an actor to get his teeth into. I’ll have to sit down to talk with the production people on how I’m going to play him.’ But as one journalist noted, ‘Little did he or his drama teacher at Corona realise that several decades after he had been kicked out of the school for his reckless behaviour that he would end up receiving lavish plaudits for his portrayal on television of Henry VIII as a paranoid East End gangster.’
Ray continues, it was very brave of Granada to cast me as the king. ‘I mean, it’s not the norm is it? He’s been played before by very talented people and always done very well. I’m just trying to look for different angles, to play him as a man and let everyone else worry about him being the king. It’s a tough job, it’s physical, mental, everything, and there’s pressure. I’m not finding it easy, but sometimes you have to put your head on the line.’
What was also exciting about the latest incarnation of Henry was that it promised to be quite different from the atmospheric and rather restrained period films that had gone before: Alexander Korda’s 1963 The Private Life of Henry VIII with Charles Laughton was the first talking version and was followed by A Man for All Seasons, the multiple Oscar-winner of 1966, with Robert Shaw; Richard Burton’s 1969 Anne of the Thousand Days, another 10-Oscar nominated picture, and the highly-acclaimed 1970 BBC production, The Six Wives of Henry VIII starring Keith Michell, that had also made it to the big screen two years later.
For the Winstone retelling, though, there would be guts and gore aplenty, warned director Pete Travis. ‘This is The Godfather in tights. In Ray we have a man who has a wonderful animal power, very like that which Henry would have had. It’s violent and sexy and that is what the world was like then. People have not seen history done like this before. Being the king is about being wonderfully charismatic. I think Ray is probably the only British actor who can do that ruthless power but also be incredibly vulnerable. He can switch from being a little boy to an ogre in the blink of an eye. If you weren’t casting Ray, the only other actors you’d be looking at are Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.’