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The White Queen on BBC1: A historical drama that's barely medieval at all

Where are the lantern jaws and bowl haircuts, the suppurating pustules and the decaying teeth? Where is the dirt?

The White Queen

It’s 1464 and, in a forest somewhere in England, the new Yorkist king, Edward IV, is doing his best to get into the knickers – I write metaphorically, as drawers were not invented until the late 18th century – of a Lancastrian widow called Elizabeth Woodville. “I’m mad for you,” he whispers, unbuttoning his flies. “I’m desperate for you,” he pants, reaching deep into his hose.

Most young widows in 1464 would, one assumes, have taken such kingly utterances as commands rather than suggestions, what with Edward being the monarch and all. But Woodville, who looks as though she has strolled straight out of a 1970s ad for Silvikrin, is having none of it. She grabs his dagger and puts it to her throat. She will kill herself rather than let the gorgeous Edward give her a good seeing to – unless he makes her his wife first.

Judging by the number of trailers it has shown for the series, the BBC is very excited about The White Queen (Sundays, 9pm), its gauzy adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s The Cousins’ War novels – and on paper it’s not hard to work out why. People love Game of Thrones and they adore Wolf Hall (an adaptation of which is also on the way). The White Queen is a kind of halfway house between the two: no dragons but plenty of scheming and the Tudors just over the horizon. Then you sit down to watch it and all you can think is: “Oh.” I could almost hear myself deflating. The look of the thing! Even the first series of Blackadder was more medieval than this.

Where are the lantern jaws and bowl haircuts, the suppurating pustules and the decaying teeth? Where is the dirt? Woodville’s ancestral manor looks as if Aggie MacKenzie has just run her Dyson over everything. You can almost smell the potpourri. Watching the first episode was like visiting a National Trust property on a re-enactment day. If the camera had accidentally shifted two inches to the right, doubtless we would have copped a good look at a tea room, a garden centre and a car park full of Volvos.

All this is a pity because Woodville and the other women at the saga’s heart – Anne Neville, whose second husband will one day be Richard III, and Margaret Beaufort, the mother of the future Henry VII – are nothing if not fascinating: ambitious, determined and supremely pragmatic. You long to know more about them – the gut truths that only fiction can reveal. But the writing is so drippy and the performances so glossy that they slip, eel-like, from your grasp.

Woodville is played by Rebecca Ferguson, who is Swedish and sounds it (she’d do far better in a live-action remake of Noggin the Nog). Edward IV is played by Max Irons, who looks as though he should be in a boy band or Brideshead Revisited (like his dad). His olive skin speaks of Mallorca, not York (and certainly not of scurvy). James Frain is better cast as Lord Warwick, the kingmaker – his face might have been whittled from oak – but his lines are the hammiest of all, the inevitable lot of the baddie. Janet McTeer is good as Woodville’s mother, Jacquetta, who is a witch as well as a Lancastrian, but so far the absolute star of the show has been the hairstyle worn by Duchess Cecily (Caroline Goodall): a couple of plaited bat wings so loopily vast that it’s a wonder Henry VI hasn’t chosen to hide in them.

There’s plenty of sex, naturally. And one imagines that in 1464 people did have plenty of sex. What else were they supposed to do in all that darkness? But this is very pretty, poised sex, all gleaming bums and Toast nightgowns. Woodville and the king, following their hush-hush nuptials, might as well have been on a mini-break at a posh hotel, the way they carried on; all their lusty union lacked was a “Do not disturb” sign on the door and breakfast in bed.

The Woodville hunting lodge did not, alas, offer room service, though it wasn’t only for this reason that the king departed for battle hungry. Apparently, he was too much in love to eat, a line that struck me as even more drippy and inauthentic than everything else he said. My guess is that the real Edward probably didn’t send Henry VI into exile on an empty stomach. My guess is that he called for bread and meat and ale and belched loudly, his mouth opening indelicately to reveal a row of black and missing teeth.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland