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The White Queen: romance, sex, magic, scowling, social snobbery and battles

The BBC's new Sunday night drama set in the Wars of the Roses might not quite tick all historical boxes, but it's likely to become required Sunday night viewing.

Rebecca Ferguson as Elizabeth Woodville in the BBC's "The White Queen". Photograph: BBC/Company Pictures & ALL3MEDIA/Ed Miller

The forest floor is covered in snow. Into the clearing stumbles a lone soldier, his breath heavy as he drips a trail of blood. He pauses, panting and looking around nervously through the foliage. The camera descends from above, hot on his tail as he stumbles, shedding his helmet and clutching his wound. Then it begins; the music, low and discordant at first like a heartbeat, building to the rhythm of the rider in pursuit, becoming faster, louder. He falls and through the trees, his foe appears, helmeted astride a white horse, his sword drawn to his victim’s scream of terror. Elizabeth Woodville’s first husband is dead, killed by the man who would become her second.

Thus begins the story of The White Queen, which kicked off this Sunday on BBC1 and runs for ten episodes. Rarely has a series been so eagerly anticipated than this retelling of a Fifteenth Century romance that changed the course of a country’s politics. Fans of Philippa Gregory’s bestselling trilogy of novels, which tell the story of the Wars of the Roses through the eyes of its women, have been awaiting this day since plans were first announced to bring her characters to life. This lavish £25m collaboration between the BBC and STARZ, starring the enchanting Rebecca Ferguson as Elizabeth Woodville and Max Irons as her lusty King, should not disappoint them. Filmed in the medieval city of Bruges, it is as beautifully shot as it is located. Yet perhaps, as expected, it is a little more Romeo and Juliet than accurate medieval protocol.

The magnetism between Elizabeth and Edward is quickly established. Their first meeting, beneath the legendary Whittlebury oak, is touching and immediate. Small details add to the anticipation; her mother’s good luck charm, her son biting into a plum, the other waving on the King’s approach. Historical purists might object. It is unlikely to have happened like that in real life. Far from being a “way-side hussy”, Elizabeth had probably already encountered Edward in the Lancastrian court circles of their fathers, but this is an adaption of a novel for Sunday night viewing and the romantic legend makes for better television.

The on-screen attraction between the star-crossed lovers is real and believable. As Ferguson explained in a recent BBC interview, she and Irons “just clicked” with “amazing chemistry straight away”. Almost as convincing are the heavy-handed doubts of the Woodville men, whose early snarls and cynical warnings anticipate the image we have of Elizabeth “wading through blood” for this marriage, as her mother warns her. At the start, her male relations have the feeling of caricatures, deliberate created as foils for the new young king, but as the episode progressed, they were prevailed upon by the wisdom of women to wear white roses. Alongside Jacquetta, played by the impressive Janet McTeer, “commoner” Elizabeth states she is a match for any man and the audience believe her. Through this first episode, it was the pairing of mother and daughter which really stole the show. In a trilogy which presents an alternative perspective of the era through female eyes, these two were radiant.

Almost too radiant. Of course, it was partly the magic at work. In real life, accusations of witchcraft were made against Jacquetta at the instigation of the Earl of Warwick, depicted here in best shouty mode by the rugged James Frain. Yet Jacquetta was cleared by Parliament in January 1470 and no further evidence exists that she or her daughter attempted to practise the dark arts against their foes. However, the sorcery, and Jacquetta’s reputed descent from the goddess Melusine, adds another thread to the narrative which allows for the foreshadowing of future tragic events. Thus the first episode compounds the promise of future conflict, with Elizabeth’s vision of a woman in red with blood on her hands, and the need to protect her sleeping sons, whose future brothers would become known to history as the Princes in the Tower. The dark, misty scenes beside the river when the two women cast their threads, provides a balance to the romantic “boy fogged in lust” shots of the pair in the garden, or the domestic scenes of the family playing blind man’s buff.  Sorcery also gives the audience an alternative explanation of why Elizabeth is a “match for any man,” when, according to the standards of the day, she was not.

Charming as they are, Elizabeth and her mother as depicted in this episode are perhaps a little too clever, too confident and assured, for the reality of a protocol-conscious Fifteenth Century. Sometimes they even come across as a little smug. Initially, their cunning and womanly wisdom makes the Woodville men, Baron Rivers (Robert Pugh) and Anthony (Ben Lamb) a real life sophisticate, appear naïve, even a little crass. It is clear who wears the braies in the Woodville family. The capitulation of Rivers with the line “sometimes woman you even scare me” was rather a clumsy reinforcement of Jacquetta’s marriage to, as Warwick put it, a “grubby little squire”.

It was in the exchange with Duchess Cecily (Caroline Goodall) however, that Jacquetta, as her daughter’s mouthpiece, really overstepped the historical mark. The disapproving Duchess, who was known in real life as “proud Cis,” is too easily overcome by her social inferiors when they whip out her apparent “secret” affair with a French archer. Lost for words, she is silenced within minutes, almost cowed by them. While contemporary notions of “courtesy” dictated extreme forms of submission to the queen, this is a Cecily straight from the pages of a novel rather than the actual proud aristocrat who asserted her own right to rule.

But then again, there is nothing wrong with that. To attempt to map these fictional constructs on to their real counterparts is perhaps to miss the point. Novelists have no moral obligation to present the truth, it is their prerogative to exploit events for the purposes of entertainment. They are free to select and emphasise certain characteristics and ignore others, to merge and shape the past at will in order to structure a balanced narrative of highs and lows. They can even, horror of horrors for historians, alter the past if they wish to. If we get too hung up on playing a game of spot the inaccuracy, we may be in danger of missing out on a very enjoyable piece of Sunday night escapism. That is, so long as we can overlook the clanky old clichés such as “the wheel of fortune rises and it falls,” “the king has married from another house” and “the boy is fogged with lust”. Perhaps the charm of the episode might even allow us to embrace them.

The White Queen contained exactly what it promised; romance, sex, magic, scowling, social snobbery and battles. The opposing sides have been drawn up, of Lancaster and York, establishing a narrative we can anticipate unfolding to more of “Kingmaker” Warwick’s tight-lipped objections and Anthony Woodville’s bristling pity. James Frain, recently lauded for his performance as Thomas Cromwell in The Tudors, may well emerge to steal the show alongside Margaret Beaufort and the other York brothers, only briefly glimpsed in this first episode. Trouble clearly lies ahead. In author Philippa Gregory’s words, “these aren’t like normal family quarrels. If you move against somebody, its death for you or him – or her.” It is the Romeo and Juliet style of this first episode that was a particular strength and should ensure the continuing high viewing figures commanded by The Tudors and The Borgias, filling the old Downton Abbey slot as required Sunday night viewing. With this introduction giving us a glimpse of the other cast members waiting in the wings, The White Queen promises to develop into a more complex and satisfying drama.