It’s that time of year when all the big TV series are shuttering their doors for the summer and heading out of town, leaving us with reruns, big sporting events (hello, Wimbledon!) and sundry movies to fill up the schedules. One notable exception to this prevailing rule is BBC1’s major new Sunday evening drama serial The White Queen, based on the historical novels of Philippa Gregory, which started last weekend.
For once this is not a history drama set in Henry VIII’s Tudor court, but is instead based in the previous century. It opens in 1464 and features the character of Elizabeth Woodville, a widowed commoner who accidentally-on-purpose meets the King, Edward IV, as he travels back from one of those pressing War of the Roses engagements that was preoccupying the monarchy at the time. One whirlwind romance later and Elizabeth is being introduced as Edward’s de facto new queen back at court to his less than entirely thrilled royal family.
There was something strangely airless and chilly about the first hour-long episode of this ten-part series. Considering it was about a grand affair between Elizabeth and Edward, it was utterly passionless as a whole. It was far more concerned with beautiful renderings of the English countryside, of the interiors that looked like they’d been art-directed for a Habitat photo shoot, and the conspicuously timeless costumes looking like they’d stepped straight out of this week’s Next catalogue. They wouldn’t have been out of place if worn out and about in Chelsea. There was no dirt or grim or mud or squalor, no blood or hardship: it was a very upper middle class view of the 15th century, which I have to say looks a terribly lovely place to live and not at all the violent, poverty-stricken and disease-ravaged time that I’d otherwise thought from mere history texts.
Still, what else could we have expected from a show that by its very choice of time slot is clearly intended to be a rival to Downton Abbey in our affections – and we all know how hard-hitting and realistic Downton is, right? Actually it really is by comparison with this dream version of English history, where the unreality is even more jarring by virtue of its total lack of interest in period authenticity. The plot is basically a Mills and Boon wish-fulfilment fantasy: poor girl meets rich, handsome and kindly King, sweeps him off his feet, and for once he doesn’t rape her or cheat on her but actually does the decent thing and takes her as his bride – hurrah!
This may be a bit harsh on the series as a whole: I get the feeling that episode one is more of a prologue, a necessary preamble setting things up for what’s to follow. Now that Elizabeth has arrived in court and faces an array of people all determined to see her brought down as soon as possible, the drama will likely pick up and get more impassioned. There are certainly some good signs among the casting, with Janet McTeer in wonderful form as Elizabeth’s mother who is miles ahead of everyone else with her machinations. Her initial scene squaring off with the superb Caroline Goodall as Edward’s mother the domineering Duchess Cecily (The White Queen’s answer to Downton’s Maggie Smith) was without question the best scene of the first episode, coming just before the end credits.
There’s also solid support from James Frain, definitely the ‘go-to guy’ when you want someone irredeemably black-hearted (he played a scheming Thomas Cromwell in The Tudors) and some interesting players yet to be properly introduced such as Aneurin Barnard as Richard, Duke of Gloucester and Amanda Hale as Lady Margaret Beaufort. As Elizabeth, Rebecca Ferguson was rather blank in this first hour while Max Irons (Edward) was notably absent, the actor not helped by a script that clearly wasn’t interested in him as anything other than a plot device to facilitate Elizabeth’s story.
But once the other characters get into gear then this series could yet lift itself up from its tepid, chocolate box beginnings into something more interesting and worthwhile watching. It’s never going to be a Game of Thrones or a match to Hilary Mantel’s griping, revisionist take on the Tudor period, but at the very least it might hopefully rise above being just a showcase of the latest interior design, fashion and photography talents at work in the industry.
The White Queen continues on Sunday evenings on BBC1 at 9pm for ten weeks. It is released on DVD and Blu-ray on August 19, 2013.