Charles II: The Power & The Passion (Parts 1&2)

Charles II: The Power & The Passion (2003)  Director:  Joe Wright  Screenplay:  Adrian Hodges  Starring: Rufus Sewell, Rupert Graves, Martin Freeman, Charlie Creed-Miles, Shirley Henderson, Helen McCrory, Christian Coulson, Ian McDiarmid, Shaun Dingwall, Emma Pierson, David Bradley, Eddie Marsan, Diana Rigg, Tabitha Wady, Anne-Marie Duff, Thierry Perkins-Lyautey, Jochum ten Haaf, Alice Patten

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You know, when I set out on this course of reading I knew very little about the Restoration, and I find myself surprised at the amount of knowledge I’ve managed to absorb just by trying to make head or tail of the literature of the day; enough, as it turns out, so that I can spot when the makers of Charles II: The Power & The Passion start tampering with the facts.

This mini-series has been broadcast here at least three times, although for some reason I never watched it properly before. (Probably because I had no interest in the Restoration, ha-ha.) I did catch bits and pieces of it, though, which from what I can gather puts me in more or less the same boat as the American viewers of this series, who got a significantly cut-down version of a drama that is, in my opinion, far too short to start with.

However, the good news here is that, whatever the series’ faults, its production values of are truly excellent. (Finding Kate Harwood’s name in the opening credits was immediately reassuring.) The casting of Rufus Sewell as Charles was a bit of a no-brainer, I guess, but he’s really very good, capturing the mixture of character traits that drove so much of the era’s upheaval. We see Charles’s obsession with his father’s death, and his consequent determination not just to hold the crown, but to revive its divine attribution – and sacrifice anything or anyone that might interfere with his goal.

It is on this point alone that Charles is steadfast, however: in all else he is facile in a way that is occasionally admirable, and frequently dismaying. We see a spirit of compromise and tolerance, particularly in matters of religion, completely out of step with the times; we see also the unfortunate habit of being swayed by just the wrong person at just the wrong time; and above all we see that he is, when it comes to the ladies, a complete putz.

Part 1 opens with the execution of Charles I, which turns out to be the younger Charles’s nightmare (complete with sitting bolt upright in bed – tsk). We find Charles and his entourage in Antwerp – for simplicity’s sake, I imagine, they keep the peripatetic prince fairly stationary – where he is advised and supported by Sir Edward Hyde (Ian McDiarmid), and passes his time in company with his lifelong friend, George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham (Rupert Graves). The latter is bored and frustrated with his position – and Charles’s poverty – and begins to counsel compromise with Cromwell, to Charles’s outrage. At length, Buckingham reveals that he has been invited back to England under promise of forgiveness by Cromwell and with the offer of an advantageous marriage. He accepts, initiating a growing rift between himself and Charles that will ultimately find Buckingham amongst the leaders of Charles’s opponents.

We also have a first glimpse of religious discord, ominously enough within Charles’s own family, as he and his mother, the coldly Catholic widow Henrietta Maria (Diana Rigg), clash over the religion of Charles’s younger brothers: Charles is adament that it is only as the Protestant king of a Protestant country that he can regain his father’s throne; that Parliament will accept nothing else. The queen counters that he would not need Parliament if, as a Catholic king, he joined with Louis XIV, and shared his bounty and his armies. She also recommends the re-Catholicisation of England by the simple expedient of burning all the Protestants at the stake.

Charles soon finds some consolation for his various woes, however, when he encounters one Lady Palmer – aka Barbara Villiers (Helen McCrory), the first and longest-lasting of many, many, many royal mistresses, who would bear Charles five (acknowledged) children, but whose increasing promiscuity and debauchery would eventually see her supplanted and evicted from Whitehall. This series also posits an ongoing affair between Barbara and Buckingham, who was – I think – her half-cousin, and has her seducing the young Duke of Monmouth (Christian Coulson), and encouraging his ambitions. It is via Barbara that we here learn that Buckingham, far from finding the expected pardon in England, has been consigned to the Tower of London by Cromwell.

In the wake of Cromwell’s death and the resignation of Richard Cromwell, the question of the restoration is broached. Her we are introduced to the Earl of Shaftesbury (Martin Freeman), who reveals Charles’s intentions to Parliament – including, typically, a promise to reopen the theatres and allow music and dancing. It also includes an offer of amnesty for those who opposed him; and offer that does not (and did not) extend to those who signed Charles I’s death warrant. The beginning of Charles’s reign is marked by the bloody execution of the condemned (and oh, how these historical dramas love to dwell upon the horror of hanging, drawing and quartering!); although here it is implied that, sickening of the slaughter midway through the process, Charles pardoned those still alive.

Under Barbara’s influence, Buckingham is restored to favour. Barbara further exhibits her power over Charles after the birth of their first child when, as Monmouth looks on in startled admiration, she throws a monumental tantrum from which she emerges triumphant as Countess of Castlemaine. Mistresses and bastards aside, Parliament is already considering the question of Charles’s marriage to Catherine of Braganza (Shirley Henderson), whose dowry outweighs her Catholicism, at least to some. We get the first scuffle here between Charles and Shaftesbury, as the latter protests Catherine’s religion. Charles voices his determination to pursue a policy of religious tolerance: perhaps the noblest of all his intentions and, alas, like most noble intentions at the time, one which came to nothing.

I’m going to make a concerted effort here not to append the word “unfortunate” to every mention of Catherine, but I’m not sure how far I’ll succeed – particularly not in the face of her unkind reception by a snickering royal household, provoked by her appearance, her lack of English, and her outrageous request for a cup of tea; nor in that of the terror with which she prepares herself to submit to her wedding-night: a terror so evident that Charles suggests they postpone things for a while. There’s certainly a careless sort of kindness in this, but at the heart of it, he simply doesn’t find her attractive. The marriage remains unconsumated until a day when Charles, catching Catherine off-guard, dressed in boys’ clothes, her hair loose and romping with a dog, is caught off-guard himself.

There’s a certain detached humour in this series, particularly in the way it views Charles himself, and we get a taste of it here. Upon her arrival in England, it is discovered that Catherine speaks not a word of English; yet before much longer, having become only too well aware of Barbara Villiers, she is throwing the furniture at Charles and screaming about, “Your whore!” She learned that word quickly enough, of course. (“I suspect the queen still has some reservations over Lady Castlemaine’s appointment to the household,” deadpans Sir Edward.)

Meanwhile, James, Duke of York (Charlie Creed-Miles) and Buckingham are agitating for war against the Dutch, against the counsel of Sir Edward Hyde and Shaftesbury. Swayed by James’s muttered aside that the monetary spoils of war would free him from Parliament’s grip, Charles votes yes. Now, we’ve already considered just how bad an idea this was apropos of Henry Neville’s The Isle Of Pines. It also gives us one of the series’ odder glitches, at it places the Battle of Medway before the Great Fire.

Actually, James is having quite a run of outs, as it is now that his affair with Ann Hyde (Tabitha Wady) becomes public due to her pregnancy. The series takes the stance that James was essentially trapped into marriage, whereas there seems reasonable evidence that, despite urgings that no-one expected him to keep the promises he made before the Restoration, he insisted on going through with it. If so—well, no good deed goes unpunished, I guess: it would of course be a child of that marriage to whom James would eventually lose the throne. The script here takes the opposing view chiefly, I imagine, to give us an early scene of Charles refusing to interfere with the succession in any way: having Parliament dissolve James’s marriage and declare his child illegitimate would be setting far too dangerous a precedent.

Part 2 opens with the court gathered around a telescope, as Halley’s Comet passes. Charles tells Catherine that it means nothing, but Sir Edward comments quietly that many see it as a portent: “They foretell disasters and catastrophes before the year is out.” (Possibly this is why they moved Medway.) For Charles himself, the year certainly starts disastrously, with his pursuit of Lady Frances Stewart (Alice Patten) finishing – gasp! – unsuccessfully. (The sorely harrassed young woman had to find ways to hold him off until she could arrange to elope with her lover, the Duke of Richmond.) Elsewhere, the unfortunate Catherine (yeah, I know…), after three childless years, is taking the waters at Tunbridge Wells, which were believed to help with conception; while James is taking Catholic instruction…

For a time it seems that the former, at least, will end well, but Catherine’s joyfully announced pregnancy ends in miscarriage. In her misery, the unfortunate woman (sorry…) wanders into the royal nursery, staring in agonised bewilderment at Barbara and her illegitimate children. “What did you do…to warrant such a sign of Grace…?”

In the wake of Catherine’s miscarriage, Charles recalls James from sea, where he is leading the war against the Dutch in his position of Admiral of the Fleet. James is outraged, but Charles tells him flatly that with only his infant daughters to follow him, his life cannot be risked.

When it becomes apparent that Catherine will never bear a child, an odd evolution takes place in her position at court. In her despair, she becomes one of the few people who will speak the truth to Charles without hesitation; and over time she slowly transforms into Charles’s friend and counsellor – quite a ruthless counsellor at times – but one, perhaps the only one, he can trust completely. It is to Catherine he confides the secret of James’s conversion, predicting that it will bring everything to ruin. Interestingly, Charles’s attitude is entirely secular: he views James’s choice as selfish and ultimately destructive, but there is no hint he sees it as dividing him from his brother forever; as his mother would certainly see it. Whether this is a sign of Charles’s fundamental irreligiosity or his fundamental Catholicism is unclear.

As Part 2 moves towards its conclusion, we get two very strange choices from screenwriter Adrian Hodges – one of them, indeed, unforgiveable. With the outbreak of the Great Plague, a horrified and sickened Charles is taken through the streets of London by the magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey (David Bradley). Berry Godfrey is best known as the magistrate who took Titus Oates’ deposition, his “final” version of the events of the Popish Plot – and who was murdered soon afterwards. To many, the murder was proof positive of the truth of Oates’ accusations – while some say it was Oates and his people who had the magistrate murdered for just that reason. When the character of Sir Edmund turned up at this point in the series, I assumed it was to prepare for these later events – but he never appears again. Odd.

The other mystifying plot-thread concerns debate over Charles’s supposed marriage to Lucy Walter and Monmouth’s legitimacy. Barbara has been pushing this bandwagon, as well as trying to convince Charles to divorce Catherine – mostly because of personal emnity, we imagine; while she and Buckingham are both busy poisoning Charles’s mind against Sir Edward Hyde, who has too much influence for their liking. The question of the Test Act has already created a rift between Charles and Sir Edward, and in the wake of the Battle of Medway, Hyde’s enemies see their chance, with Buckingham calling for his impeachment. Buckingham’s outspokenness sees him back in the Tower for a time, but he emerges triumphant. For a time it seems that Hyde’s enemies will bring about his death, but Charles commutes the sentence: the most loyal of his counsellors is instead sent into permanent exile. Here we have the first of a long line of moments in which Charles averts his eyes from a friend, murmuring that someone must take the blame…

Meanwhile, according to the script, it was not Lucy Walter at all who owned a black box containing proof of her marriage to Charles, but Charles himself! Repeatedly, Charles denies his marriage and declares Monmouth illegitimate; but a silent scene has him producing a hidden black box, him taking a paper from it and destroying it…

This is an absolutely bewildering touch – particularly in light of the series’ depiction of Charles’s stance on the succession. Think about it: what he’s doing here is destroying the proof that he has a legitimate Protestant heir: an heir that would have solved all his problems; an heir that would have solved EVERYONE’S problems. The hell – !?

Okay, I guess they just wanted to work the famous black box into it somehow… And they as good as admit the tampering, too: we never actually see what the paper is. And really, perhaps it was just the symbolism of it they were after; because, as Charles drops that mysterious paper into the fire, we cut from those flames to the Great Fire of London…

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11 Responses to “Charles II: The Power & The Passion (Parts 1&2)”

  1. Charles fiddling while London burns? Yes, I have to say that this is a fairly dubious choice from the point of view of understanding motivations; perhaps they just said “hang it” and went for the drama…

    Charles I seems to have been very much inclined to agree with whomever had got to him most recently; it’s not at all surprising that Charles II should have felt the same. (He did at least learn something from his father’s end, in the matter of not getting too far into bed with Spain. Parliament was desperate not to kill Charles I, and was casting about for some sort of safe exile, when it turned out that Charles I had been corresponding with the King of Spain, essentially saying “put me back on the throne and England will be your Catholic satrapy”. Even though Charles knew perfectly well that his correspondence was being read. After that they had to kill him.)

  2. Part 3 deals (among other things) with Charles’s secret treaties with France. I suppose you’d say he managed that business much better than his father did his interactions with Spain, since he was not only successfully deceitful and treacherous, to Louis as well as to England, but managed to find all the fall-guys he needed to cover his behind, too.

  3. I was just reading the list in Wikipedia of all the monarchs of England. And I couldn’t help but be struck by how the majority of the royal dynasties aren’t really English. The Hanovers are a German line (even George II was born in Germany, not just George I) as are the Saxe-Coburg/Windsors after them, William of Orange was Dutch, William the Conqueror was French (of Norse viking roots), the Stuarts were Scottish, and the Tudors were of Welsh roots. The Plantagenets are almost the only dynasty that wasn’t imported, and even they got legitimacy from the Bourbon line.

  4. It does make the Stuart restorationists look particularly silly.

    Of course the Tudors had to cope with Henry VII’s claim to descent from King Arthur. Who was Arthur’s only* son, again?

    * yes yes I know but those are pretty minor parts of the material and probably weren’t known at the time.

  5. Well, they went from being invaded and conquered about five minutes to being dominated by the Catholic / Protestant issue; the politic intermarriages kept the blood mixed and also made it likely that the next heir wouldn’t be all that English.

    It’s amazing, too, how much trouble these Stuarts had reproducing themselves within marriage. Charles’s, or rather, Catharine’s inability to bear a live child (she had a series of miscarriages and stillbirths, not just one) brought about the situation with James; and then, having removed him, William and Mary had no children, following which Anne couldn’t produce an heir despite seventeen pregnancies, which brought on the Hanoverians.

  6. I thought bringing in the Hanoverians was just a way of weaseling out of the problem of the legitimate heir being Catholic.

    • The lack of viable heirs may just reflect the degree to which they were already inbred.

      • As far as that goes, Anne’s parents weren’t related, and she was only distantly related to her husband (third cousins, I think), but it didn’t do her any good, biologically speaking.

  7. The legitimate heir was Catholic, but not the legal one: Catholics were blocked from the succession after the removal of James; Protestant monarchs weren’t even allowed to marry them any more (and have not done so to this day, although presumably they could).

    All this went with a blanket revocation of Catholics’ rights, none of which were reinstated until 1832.

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