Artist Armitage vs. Armitage’s art: A developmental thought on art, communication and fandom

[At left: Kris Holden-Ried as William Compton in a publicity shot for episode 1 of The Tudors. Has better boots than Richard Armitage.]

Because of the differing demands on my time these days, my writing’s shifted mostly to mid-days and afternoons, and so late nights, when the household’s gone to bed, I’ve been watching The Tudors. Yeah, I know. I wouldn’t have watched it except that if my students know anything about this period of history at all, it’s The Tudors. (Students: Margaret Tudor never married the king of Portugal, and hence could not have suffocated him, and it’s unlikely that a sixteenth-century royal couple, whose coitus was a matter of state, would ever have been so unattended as to allow that kind of thing without a surrounding conspiracy to let it happen. And now that they’ve conflated the Tudor sisters, I wonder how they’re going to explain the familial relationship to the era’s Scots kings — and simultaneously, whether I could do this in lecture. Just reduce various historical individuals into an illustrative person who never existed). My favorite actor is not Max Brown, who’s even less interesting to me here than he was in Spooks 9, but rather Kris Holden-Ried, who plays William Compton. Could I finally have found my bit on the side? I adore that scruffy look. And here‘s the very gentle, sweet kiss he gives Thomas Tallis. I understand from the synopsis I’ve read that Compton disappears quickly from the series. But if I decided to get into him, it turns out, there’s William Compton / Thomas Tallis fanfic. Oh, well. Maybe someday. But right now, I’m not delving into anyone else’s work. Richard Armitage still takes up all my intellectual energy.

The Tudors isn’t very good either as history or drama or culture. The mistakes are obvious, even when they modernize stuff that would have been different in the sixteenth century. I am a total pedant, of course. Catherine of Aragon says “una día” to her daughter in farewell. Om, no. Either “un día,” or preferably “algún día,” but día is definitely masculine, you pretty much learn that on the first day of Spanish class (¡Buenos días, compañeros y compañeras!). Maybe Catherine forgot how to speak her native tongue after all those years in cold England. She also says “seas fuerte,” and I would have guessed it would be “quédate fuerte,” but whatever. I like the frequent dance scenes — and the way they signal how court life meshed with politics — although I can’t help but notice that the musicians are finger-synching, and sometimes playing dance tunes only composed in the subsequent century. I laughed out loud when the script had John Fisher quoting Robert Browning, but I got angry when a character quoted a line from one of my favorite sixteenth-century poems during one of Henry VIII’s random assignations. Eep. I probably know too much about history to give this piece anything like the necessary willing suspension of disbelief to get involved in it. The constant appearance of knee length leather boots on long-legged men is probably the best part.

[At right: Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in a publicity still from Robin Hood 2.4. Enlarges well, but the boots are horrible. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com]

Admittedly, it would be great to see Richard Armitage wearing The Tudors boots. I loved the Porter boots. The motorcycle boots for the Guy of Gisborne costume were really awful, though slightly better in series 3, but I fear his dwarf boots won’t be especially elegant, maybe because his legs are going to be so short. Long boots on long legs, yum, and Richard Armitage has beautiful calves. If I knew his shoe size, maybe I’d buy some boots I like and send them to him for his birthday this year with a card that said “hint, hint!” enclosed. However, beyond the boots, and maybe the dancing, I’m not sad he’s not in it. Then again: if he had been in it, I’d probably have gotten deeply involved, even though the history and drama are ridiculous.

Turning over this problem — which actually made me develop some sympathy for how people who know things about the military feel about badly-written war dramas — also made me think about fans’ frustration because Mr. Armitage wasn’t cast in something they loved (Game of Thrones, which I’m too lazy to watch, is the most frequent fan wish I encounter). And it made me think about why I’m generally neutral about projects he might be cast in, except those about which he expresses excitement himself: stage work, though I’d be unlikely to see any of it, or the Richard III project, because he says fairly regularly that he’s interested in that.

I guess what watching The Tudors made me realize is that I’m still sorting out my feelings about art vs. artist. North & South grabbed me because of its story line, but also because of Richard Armitage’s performance specifically. As I’ve said, I don’t really subscribe to eternal definitions of great art (see II here) — or maybe it’s that for me, great art speaks to an audience and that can be Shakespeare and it can be shlock or anything in between. Maybe, because I spent a lot of time learning about various historical art genres that spoke to people at one time, but that don’t speak to me (I can give you a long list of great books that I read for reasons of professional education that left me absolutely cold, starting with Madame Bovary), what I really believe in, apart from my educational commitments, is in the creation of art that speaks to people. Maybe art we call great speaks to more people over a longer period of time — but maybe that’s at least partially striving after wind. From the audience’s point of view, what speaks to us is often largely arbitrary; though taste can be educated, I don’t think it can be effective without some spark of affinity that comes from somewhere. If I want to see Richard Armitage in my favorite drama, it’s because that drama speaks to me. And even a vehicle that doesn’t say much in the grand sense can potentially speak to me if my favorite actor is in it — or even if I don’t like what it says.

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Richard Armitage as Angus in the RSC production of Macbeth. Source: Richard Armitage Central Main Gallery

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So much pride runs through all of this. The actor wants his work respected and remembered. The audience member wants people not to think poorly of her tastes or aesthetic standards. We all want to matter, in whatever terms we can; we don’t want to embarrass ourselves in our activities, whatever they are, or however we define embarrassment. But I think once we factor out the ego, the situation of the fan consists in having found an actor who does something that consistently speaks to one, no matter what role he’s playing (and even fans like some roles better than others). I think on some level, because that appears like fixation on a person, we’re ashamed to admit it — another ego matter. I mean, who wants to say, I loved this piece of crap because Richard Armitage was in it? It sounds silly. At the least, it makes us feel defensive. Richard Armitage was so good that he made me lower my standards.

But if we look at it from a work perspective: it has been Richard Armitage’s great, good gift — over and over and over — to find interesting, worthwhile things even in the briefest or most stereotypical of roles. It’s part of his amazing talent as an artist, in creating art, to be able to show me things I didn’t realize were hidden until he pointed them out to me — and which, due to his subtlety, I didn’t always even realize he was pointing out; things that washed over me in feelings rather than in perceptions or as telegraphic bulletins. His art consists in seeing things that he, in turn, communicates to us. So when he’s on screen, even if he’s not playing Shakespeare, he speaks to us. In that sense art and artist are not divided in the way that the question of “great art” suggests they are (“great artists” are people who are given the opportunity to participate in “great art”). They are rather one and the same. Armitage’s artistry is great, and thus he is a great artist. I want to see what he sees through his eyes and displays in his body because he does it the way he does it: with great artistry.

That this post is also preoccupied implicitly with a work issue of the kind that I’ve been tortured by recently is not lost on me, and the problem of what to write is on my mind, too, but I think I will concede ruefully that this post is long enough already. For right now, I’m taking away: if you’re a communicator, you need to find not just the message, but also the place, the framework, where you can communicate in your own best way, and identify the audience who is looking not only for what you have to say, but how you are saying it.

Also: boots are cool. A lesson which has somewhat less applicability to me than to Armitage, perhaps.

~ by Servetus on June 5, 2012.

23 Responses to “Artist Armitage vs. Armitage’s art: A developmental thought on art, communication and fandom”

  1. I recently watched season 1 of The Tudors for the first time after countless recommendations. I enjoyed it but the distinct lack of historical accuracy not only irritated me greatly, it also meant I kept getting confused! I also personally thought Henry VIII was miscast. I’ve stood in front of his armour and if nothing else, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is way too short!

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    • I think they must have been trying to capture something of the reported youthful energy and changeability of the young Henry VIII. I didn’t think he was the worst. I thought Natalie Dormer was really well cast — and it turns out she was in Captain America!

      The historical stuff is confusing even to me, and I lecture on this material four times a year, because it tends to come in at the margins. From what I’ve seen they’re not fudging the big issues or the things that everyone remembers, but the side ones. Like with Margaret Tudor; I kept thinking, I know a Tudor sister married a French king but which one? I really did have to check to make sure my memory was correct.

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      • Yes…I had to check that exact same thing! I thought Natalie Dormer was very good too. I do find myself waiting for the all too brief bits with Thomas Wyatt in though as I am constantly fascinated with him and his family as we are distantly related…distantly as in so remote it’s probably not even a blood link as the odds are there must have been an indiscretion somewhere along the way! 🙂

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        • I am a big Wyatt fan. The citation that annoyed me was the lady in waiting saying to Henry, “How like you this?” which is a citation from the poem of his I linked. Also love “Whoso list to hunt.”

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  2. Your comments about Richard’s artistry are spot on! He has that knack for finding something in a regular, run of the mill role and making it so much more. That’s why “Robin Hood” became “The Guy of Gisborne” show. He took a supporting character and made him the stand-out character by how he used the small amount of screen time he was given. He is so fascinating to watch. I love how, when I watch a show over and over, I spot things I didn’t see before! No wonder so many of us are obsessed with the man.

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  3. I didn’t watch The Tudors because of historical inacuracies…I didn’t think there could possibly be that much screwing going on back then. I’m probably wrong about that but it did seem to be the central theme of the show.

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    • I think there was plenty of screwing going on back then, but it would have been organized differently. A lot of stereotypes at work there.

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      • That was me trying to be funny. But I really didn’t watch because of all the inspite sex. While I realize they were trying to appeal to a younger crowd it wasn’t appealing to me. I just don’t get it, despite being a child of the free-wheeling 70s. It’s amazing how much sex sells…from toothpaste commercials to period dramas.

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  4. I didn’t like the Tudors and only watched the first series because I felt I had to watch something so much talked about. But it was a huge international success and had good production values, so at the time of RH I certainly wished, RA would do something like that. But I adore Game of Thrones, take away the fantasy elements, the violence and nudity, and you have great drama. Lots of interesting characters, none simply good or bad, all driven by their very own motivations and lots of great, long dialogue scenes that really give the actors something to do. It has been a long time since a drama had me hooked like GoT. Would I want RA to be in it? If not, it is because there is no lead, at least since Ned Stark is no more, but a ton of characters and everyone only gets little screentime.

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    • It is really pretty. The boots are especially good.

      And yeah, as you probably guessed, I’m still turning over our conversations in my mind. GoT seems it would break your notion about your frustration with ensemble casts, though.

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  5. When I first heard about The Tudors I was so excited – I couldn’t wait to watch it! Unfortunately when I have really high expectations about a new show and those expectations are not met – it means I tend to dislike it much more than I might have, had I low or no expectations at all.
    What I disliked the most were the historical inaccuracies (the most obvious one of Henry’s sisters being mashed into one character) and the blatant displays of sexuality -which I am sure were made to appeal to the 18-25 male cohort.
    I am old enough to remember the Six Wives of Henry VIII series, which was superb, so The Tudors had a long way to go to improve or even come close to the expertise of that series. I heartily agree that JRM was badly cast in that role – especially in later episodes as he never seemed to age! I also agree that Natalie Dormer was excellent as Ann Boleyn. I didn’t watch much past the first 2 episodes so I can’t really judge the rest. I did find the episode about Ann of Cleves very confusing. She was my favourite wife in the old series so I was looking forward to that one.
    All the same, had RA appeared in this series, he would definitely have improved it! I don’t really know how he does it, except whatever he believes in – he can make us believe in too!
    You are so right – he is a true artist!

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  6. I quite enjoyed watching season 1 and 2, mainly because of the cast. I really liked Natalie Dormer as Anne too. I know it’s very shallow but I just adored the gorgeous costumes! And then there was Henry Cavill who is quite pleasing on the eye. 🙂 I studied Man for All Seasons for my CPE exam back in 2000,so I was interested in how More was going to be portrayed in The Tudors. Must say burning heretics on the stake was quite a big turn-off for me. I’m a protestant at heart, and even though I know those guys (the protestants) burnt people on stakes too at the time.. it was just too much for me, I couldn’t reconcile it with the image of a great humanitarian. The historical inaccuracies didn’t bother me much because I don’t know the era at all well. One thing this series did for me though, I looked up some of the characters online to find out more about them. So if watching The Tudors piqued the interest of people in the era and inspired them to learn or read more about it, then I think it served a good purpose.

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    • well, More remained a Catholic, so he’s really a Catholic burning heretics.

      I enjoy A Man for All Seasons, and I’ve shown it in a few classes. I find that many of the students are sort of turned off by the acting style and also by the Technicolor — it’s like a different artistic genre that has to be explained to most of them; they’re more used to a realistic cinema and are bothered by the more theatrical elements. But the picture it presents of More is a bit problematic precisely because it doesn’t illuminate all the contradictions in the character: the man who wants to push treaties for perpetual peace and yet is willing to burn heretics, and then has to go to the block himself for his persistence. If you read his history of Richard III, though, you definitely get a sense of his capacity for malice and response to things he felt were a clear and present danger. I thought that Jeremy Northam got that over extremely well, even though I also loved Paul Schofield’s More.

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      • I’ve had a soft spot for Mr. Northam since.. well since Emma which was way back in 1995 or 1996 (not sure). I’m probably the only person in the Universe who prefers his Mr. Knightley to Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy. But hey, I’m used to being in the minority. 🙂 I originally started watching The Tudors because of JN. But I really liked James Frain as Cromwell too and thought Sam Neill was excellent as Wolsey. I recently bought “The Sunne in Splendour” and in the Author’s Note the writer listed More as one of the historians responsible for “blackening” Richard III’s character. My nephew pointed out to me that burning heretics and inventing stories about the “rival camp” was probably in More’s “job description”..He was serving the King after all. Still…Guess after “A Man for All Seasons” it was a bit of a let down for me to learn these things about the man. Btw, I really enjoyed the film too, and thought Philip Schofield was great in the role, if I remember correctly he was awarded an Oscar for it. 🙂

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