TV UK, 16 October

The Pardoner's Tale for our times: what do you have to do these days to deserve being beaten to death or poisoned?

Dolan Cummings

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Peter Morgan, who wrote Henry VIII (ITV1, concluding on Sunday), apparently keeps half a dozen builders in his basement to help him gauge the taste of the common man. They weren’t interested in Morgan’s other recent drama The Deal (1), but they were champing at the bit to see Ray Winstone play Enry the Eightf.

Tony Grounds took a similar approach when adapting The Pardoner’s Tale for the BBC’s current series based on The Canterbury Tales (last Thursday). ‘I’m not coming at this from an academic viewpoint’, he admits. ‘I’ve never read any Chaucer before, but I know what audiences want in terms of drama.’ (2) Hmm…. If it sounds like I’m about to launch into a tirade about dumbing down, don’t panic (although it bloody is, you know). What’s more interesting is how the screenwriter adapted an old morality tale to today’s climate.

Grounds felt that the petty rogues of Chaucer’s tale didn’t deserve their grisly fate. ‘You can’t just kill off people on TV these days for being greedy – our threshold is a lot higher. I needed to make the central characters very nasty pieces of work.’ So what do you have to do these days to deserve being beaten to death or poisoned? Grounds’ villains seemed at first to be lovable losers with a penchant for poetry, but it soon emerged that they had in fact raped and murdered a young girl. Right, so that’s bad, then? Thanks.

Meanwhile, Henry VIII is generally watchable, but certainly not impressive. The dialogue is dodgy and the story leans so heavily on David Starkey’s take on the history that it felt like a repeat, but the most embarrassing bit in the first episode was a technical thing – the apparent use of ‘blue screen’ for an outdoor bathing scene. Anne Boleyn (played by a hard-working Helena Bonham Carter) was splashing about in a moat, with the castle behind her about as believable as the moving landscape outside a car in an old movie. Come on – this is prime time! Is blue screen really good enough for the builders in the basement?

I never really got into The Osbournes, but I’m surprisingly taken with At Home with the Eubanks (Channel 5, Tuesdays at 8pm). This is partly because they seem like a genuinely nice family. Chris Eubank is now more famous for being an eccentric TV personality than a former boxer, but he is strangely likeable, maybe precisely because he refuses to know his place. It’s not just the jodhpurs and the monocle and the funny voice (he insists it isn’t a lisp) – these are just expressions of a more general aspiration to be better. But trying to be better is out of fashion.

There was a horrible sense of impending tragedy in the most recent episode, when Eubank’s oldest son said he wanted to try boxing. Eubank reluctantly agreed to help him, having famously dismissed boxing as ‘a mug’s game’. It isn’t so much that Eubank has failed to lift his family into the upper echelons of society, or even that they have been rejected by a snobbish elite, as that there is such a cultural cringe across society that it is only a lack of application that keeps the sons of the ruling class from becoming boxers.

Maybe Eubank needs half a dozen old-school toffs in the attic to show his family the way.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) See TV UK, 3 October

(2) Tony Grounds, on the Get Writing section of the BBC website

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