The Duke of Buckingham, the first of "Henry VIII's" characters to fall from royal favor, heads for the gallows in the this BBC/Time-Life production of the play with all the anguish of a man worried about missing a bus.
Aha! we say to ourselves. The actor (whose name is Julian Glover) has evidently chosen to mask the Duke's true feelings under a dignified crust of unconcern. We are watching a masterfully calculated example of that advanced trick of the thespian's trade known as playing against the emotion.
But half an hour later, when Catherine of Aragon (Claire Bloom) is about to be bounced from Henry's bed through the expediency of a papal annullment, and she vents her humiliation with scarcely a throb in her voice or a wrinkle on her brow, we begin to wonder.
When her mortal foe, Cardinal Wolsey (Timothy West), is stripped of ofily lift a few of them in the air, give them a good shake, and see what they are made of underneath those resplendent capes, jewels and feathers.
This production, all by itself, makes a powerful case for the proposition that Shakespeare is too important to be trusted to Shakespeareans.
The play, On the other hand, is the author's last and certainly in the running for his least. Even scholars who have otherwise managed to keep their noses out of the boring debate over whether Shakespeare really wrote Shakespeare have questioned whether he really wrote "Henry VIII." If he did (or if he wrote it with help from John Fletcher, a surmise discussed in Anthony Burgess' TV afterword) he can hardly have felt much enthusiasm for the delicate business of portraying so recent a monarch - one whose great-grandnephew, James I, now occupied the throne.
The team that has given us this "Henry VIII" has vowed, of course, to give us all 37 of Shakespeare's plays, so there will be some clinkers to endure. But a word of warning may be in order to parents of impressionable children awaiting their first exposure to Shakespeare:
Keep those kids away from public television tonight, at all costs.