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.

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.

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

Amy Licence is a late medieval and early Tudor historian focusing on women's lives. She is the author of the forthcoming biography Anne Neville, Richard III’s Tragic Queen and her blog can be found here.

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Don’t worry, Old Etonian Damian Lewis calls claims of privilege in acting “nonsense!”

The actor says over-representation of the privately educated at the top of acting is nothing to worry about – and his many, many privately educated peers agree.

In the last few years, fears have grown over the lack of working class British actors. “People like me wouldn’t have been able to go to college today,” said Dame Julie Walters. “I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now.”

Last year, a report revealed that half of Britain’s most successful actors were privately educated. The Sutton Trust found that 42 per cent of Bafta winners over all time were educated independently. 67 per cent of British winners in the best leading actor, actress and director categories at the Oscars attended fee-paying schools – and just seven per cent of British Oscar winners were state educated.

“That’s a frightening world to live in,” said James McAvoy, “because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part. That’s not fair to begin with, but it’s also damaging for society.”

But have no fear! Old Etonian Damian Lewis is here to reassure us. Comfortingly, the privately-educated successful actor sees no problem with the proliferation of privately-educated successful actors. Speaking to the Evening Standard in February, he said that one thing that really makes him angry is “the flaring up recently of this idea that it was unfair that people from private schools were getting acting jobs.” Such concerns are, simply, “a nonsense!”

He elaborated in April, during a Guardian web chat. "As an actor educated at Eton, I'm still always in a minority," he wrote. "What is true and always rewarding about the acting profession is that everyone has a similar story about them being in a minority."

Lewis’s fellow alumni actors include Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne – a happy coincidence, then, and nothing to do with the fact that Etonians have drama facilities including a designer, carpenter, manager, and wardrobe mistress. It is equally serendipitous that Laurie, Hiddleston and Tom Hollander – all stars of last year’s The Night Manager – attended the same posh prep school, The Dragon School in Oxford, alongside Emma Watson, Jack Davenport, Hugh Dancy, Dom Joly and Jack Whitehall. “Old Dragons (ODs) are absolutely everywhere,” said one former pupil, “and there’s a great sense of ‘looking after our own’." Tom Hollander said the Dragon School, which has a focus on creativity, is the reason for his love of acting, but that’s neither here nor there.

Damian Lewis’s wife, fellow actor Helen McCrory, first studied at her local state school before switching to the independent boarding school Queenswood Girls’ School in Hertfordshire (“I’m just as happy to eat foie gras as a baked potato,” the Telegraph quote her as saying on the subject). But she says she didn’t develop an interest in acting until she moved schools, thanks to her drama teacher, former actor Thane Bettany (father of Paul). Of course, private school has had literally no impact on her career either.

In fact, it could have had an adverse affect – as Benedict Cumberbatch’s old drama teacher at Harrow, Martin Tyrell, has explained: “I feel that [Cumberbatch and co] are being limited [from playing certain parts] by critics and audiences as a result of what their parents did for them at the age of 13. And that seems to me very unfair.”

He added: “I don’t think anyone ever bought an education at Harrow in order for their son to become an actor. Going to a major independent school is of no importance or value or help at all.” That clears that up.

The words of Michael Gambon should also put fears to rest. “The more Old Etonians the better, I think!” he said. “The two or three who are playing at the moment are geniuses, aren’t they? The more geniuses you get, the better. It’s to do with being actors and wanting to do it; it’s nothing to do with where they come from.”

So we should rejoice, and not feel worried when we read a list of privately educated Bafta and Oscar winners as long as this: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dulwich College), Emilia Clarke (St Edward’s), Carey Mulligan (Woldingham School), Kate Winslet (Redroofs Theatre School), Daniel Day-Lewis (Sevenoaks School, Bedales), Jeremy Irons (Sherborne School), Rosamund Pike (Badminton), Tom Hardy (Reed), Kate Beckinsale (Godolphin and Latymer), Matthew Goode (Exeter), Rebecca Hall (Roedean), Emily Blunt (Hurtwood House) and Dan Stevens (Tonbridge).

Life is a meritocracy, and these guys were simply always the best. I guess the working classes just aren’t as talented.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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