Monday 3 May 2021

Rewinding: a look back at The White Queen


Through May, I'm going to be celebrating the White Queen on the blog. This whole little project of mine started back in 2013 so I could write reviews of the TV series based on Philippa Gregory's  novel. I was a new mum at the time and this was the first show I'd actually watched properly since welcoming my son a few months earlier. Writing the blog was a chance to start taking just a few minutes a day for me amidst the all consuming and utterly enthralling job of being a mum. Eight years later, my son is happily reading his own books and writing his own stories so I'm taking myself back to that summer and how I felt about a TV show that was like water in a desert for me after months of no books or TV. I feel a little differently about it now but I'll save that for later in May. Let's enjoy the White Queen.

And we're off!  I can't remember the last time I was so looking forward to a new TV drama and even being in the middle of a house move didn't stop me counting down the minutes to the start of #TheWhiteQueen last night.

And I wasn't disappointed.  I wasn't totally overwhelmed either, but it was fun, watchable and had enough of the romance of the story of Edward IV and Elizabeth to make up for the fact it seemed to have forgotten most of the history.

It all started with a horrible dream which inspired Elizabeth to try and meet the York king who had killed her first husband and swiftly moved to a dreamy vision of the Northamptonshire in which she lived and where that meeting actually took place.  There were lots more scenes in forests and beneath trees as the lovers' hearts and lives entwined with the occasional reference to the Wars of the Roses. 

The actual fighting took place off camera in this episode as we spent a lot of time with Elizabeth and her Woodville family setting out their rivalries or in a hunting lodge where the new royal couple got frisky as required by modern costume drama.  We ended with a ten minute stroll round Edward's court as he showed off his pastel clad commoner wife to a strange assortment of people who will be important in the rest of the series. 

And that was part of the problem with this opening episode - a lot of scene setting.  It's an issue that all period pieces run into - how to establish characters, era and the feel of the time for those who known nothing about it without making it sound like a fact heavy GCSE history session.  The White Queen went for the total GCSE approach - from characters addressing each other by their full, proper history book names to unnatural conversations about the top ten battles of the last decade.  The whole Lancastrian cause, in this episode at least, was confined to a couple of mentions of poor king Henry losing his wits again and a fabulous chin jutting minute from Amanda Hale as Margaret Beaufort.

And that's the big draw of this adaptation - fabulous female characters at last given a voice with some fabulous actresses embodying them.  Caroline Goodall was magnificent as bitter, unhappy Duchess Cecily and Juliet Aubry could barely contain her ambitions as the Countess of Warwick.  But the show belongs to Janet McTeer as The White Queen's uber ambitious mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, who dominated every scene she was in.  Her demolition of Duchess Cecily at the end was spectacular and made as much by her dominance as by the duchess' fragile attempts at revenge.

The men were rather secondary.  Every now and again, Elizabeth's father would turn up with a band of her brothers, usually armed with daggers and inappropriate behavior towards their king.  Edward rode around the same corner of the same field several times accompanied by the same handful of men.  His main adviser, the Earl of Warwick, was full of life, anger and determination and James Frain conveyed the great sense of urgency that must have informed the Kingmaker's life but at times he seemed to have got lost on his way to an EastEnders audition as his shouting turned into estuary English at its best.

But what about the star of the show - the White Queen herself?  Rebecca Ferguson is good and beyond beautiful, giving an idea of why a king would risk his hard won crown to marry the wrong woman.  But the way her character is written is strange - at no point in this opening episode did we get a sense of the scheming, manipulating and downright devious behavior that we know Elizabeth indulged in from the very beginning of her marriage to Edward and her career as queen.  A momentary sizzle at poor old Duchess Cecily was about it - other than that, she looked lovely but seemed totally carried along by her mother and events.

Another problem for me was the lack of obvious age gap between King Edward and his new queen.  We know Elizabeth was at least five years older than her husband and that's one of the reasons she was so mistrusted from the very beginning, inhabiting for many the well worn role of older seductress.  And while Max Irons conveyed a great sense of a young man beyond self confident and ready to tackle the world, I worry that he won't have the gravitas to develop into a dominant political force.

But then, as I mentioned, the history and politics are all rather back seat here.  And perhaps the show is no worse for that.  While the Philippa Gregory novels that inspired the show were jam packed with historical accuracy and gorgeous period detail, the TV versions are soft focus, pretty and entertaining enough to make an hour seem like ten minutes.  And that, along with the fact that this show covers one of the best life stories never really told, means I'll be just as excited for the next nine Sundays as we head through blood, guts and lots of sauciness towards the founding of the Tudor dynasty.