There is nothing quite like a bit of swashbuckling and romance in terms of Sunday night television. Something to brighten the ever increasing darkness of the evenings and distract us from the looming horror of Monday’s alarm clock. As soon as one T.V. critic described it as a ‘medieval Mills and Boon’ I just knew I had to check out the BBC’s latest T.V. adaption. Based on three novels by the bestselling author Philippa Gregory, namely The White Queen, The Red Queen and The Kingmaker’s Daughter, The White Queen is a sumptuous and decadent offering. Set amidst the War of the Roses, this ten part series tracks the lives of three women, their triumphs, their misfortunes and their differing ambitions in respect of the throne of England. Spanning decades, the drama encompasses royal coups, battles, witchcraft, politics and romance.
For those of you who are not entirely familiar with English history, the War of the Roses is a rather poetic name given to a series of battles that took place between the 1450s and 1480s. Two aristocratic families, the House of Lancaster (the Red Rose) and the House of York (the White Rose) were struggling to gain and then hold onto the English throne. Although history often focuses on men, both the novels and this T.V. adaption evolve around the roles and experiences of three key female figures in the era. The White Queen, Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson), a beautiful commoner who catches the eye of and marries Edward IV (Max Irons) the Yorkist King who has just claimed the throne. Her family background and association with witchcraft means that she continually has to fight for acceptance amongst her husband’s family and the people of England. The Red Queen, Margaret Beaufort (played by Amanda Hale), an intensely religious woman who believes that not only that it is God’s will that the Lancastrian House triumphs but that her son, Henry Tudor (yes Henry VII – come on, Wanderers, you can’t claim that’s a spoiler!) should be King. Verging on the almost fanatical, Margaret will pray, scheme and betray whoever it takes in order to secure her son’s royal inheritance. Last but not least, the Kingmaker’s Daughter, Anne Neville (Faye Marsay), so called because her father the Earl of Warwick (played by the always superb James Frain) was the one to advise and guide King Edward IV onto the throne. Initially naïve and trusting, Anne is used by her parents as a pawn in their power plays before learning the hard way how to fend for herself. Her ongoing love story with King Richard III (Aneurin Barnard) from childhood friends to marriage is one of the most touching and poignant aspects of this drama.
What makes this a truly refreshing piece of historical fiction is that not only are the three main characters female, fantastically flawed and fascinating but the entire drama is full of strong, well-written women and it isn’t afraid to explore the relationships between them. The loving and supportive relationship between Elizabeth and her mother, Jacquetta Rivers (Janet McTeer) stands in sharp contrast to the hatred and bitterness between Margaret and her mother. The ongoing antagonism between Elizabeth and her mother in law, the delightfully malevolent Cecily Neville (Caroline Goodall), is a sheer delight to watch. Even in grief, the two women cannot overcome their dislike and suspicion of one another.
This is not to say that the male characters cannot hold their own. In Max Irons’ Edward IV, we see how youthful idealism slowly gives way to self-interest and a gratuitous lifestyle once he becomes accustomed to the advantages of being King. James Frain is absolutely perfect as the scheming, ambitious Kingmaker, a man who would sell his own flesh and blood off to the highest bidder if he thought it would bring him closer to the power of the throne.(And indeed he does.) Rupert Graves, as the morally ambivalent and devious Lord Stanley, continues to prove why he is one of Britain’s finest actors.
Despite having such a sterling cast, special mention must be given to Hale and Barnard. Hale is rapidly becoming one of my favourite actresses and her performance as the Red Queen is brilliant to watch. Somehow Hale manages to capture the contradictory facets of Margaret Beaufort’s life: a devoted mother who is forcibly separated from her son, a devout women of conviction and the ruthless, scheming courtier who smile sweetly whilst plotting York’s downfall. Barnard is one of those upcoming actors I would recommend keeping a close eye on. His portrayal of the much maligned Richard III from the almost shy brother of King Edward IV to an honourable but cynical warrior who despairs of the path that his brother’s reign has taken is believable and utterly gripping. Most famously known for being a hunchback and the possible murderer of his two royal nephews, it is unusual to find a sympathetic version of Richard III. Barnard has done an excellent job with this character and definitely has me rethinking those history books.
Herein lies the problem, Wanderers – the calibre of both actors and acting is just so good I could quite happily write about all of them! However, that would be to do a great disservice to the hard work of the set and costume designers. Visually, The White Queen is an absolute joy to watch. The settings are beautiful, whether they are the royal bedchambers, the Tower of London or a battlefield. Although, I will admit that there have been some rather splendid bloopers where decidedly modern features have slipped into the frame. The costumes are stunning with a couple of nods to the more outlandish fashions of the day (check out Cecily Neville for some truly wondrous hairstyles and headwear).
Of course there is always contention when it comes to historical fiction. There is a case for arguing that liberties should not be taken with the portrayal of real people and events. I have some historian friends almost ready to weep at the level of inaccuracy in this drama. However, I would argue that anything which provokes interest in a lesser known historical era is to be celebrated. If you watch this and find yourself hitting good old Google to find out more about the War of the Roses then surely that’s a good thing? Just the success of this current drama is raising awareness that there is an entire wealth of history out there other than the Tudors just waiting to be explored.
I would give this series 4 out of 5.
Red Hamilton (wants to revisit the Tower of London.)