Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. TV & Radio
2 June 2021updated 02 Aug 2021 11:06am

Channel 5’s Anne Boleyn is corny and forgettable

This historical drama is full of inert dialogue, cheesy props and stapled-on proto-feminism.  

By Rachel Cooke

Most people would say that Hilary Mantel has rewritten the Tudor playbook to the degree that there’s little point in revisiting the story of Henry VIII and his disposable wives unless your approach is unimpeachably radical; Jean Plaidy (her soapy historical novels were much loved when I was a teenager) and The Tudors (the dire 2007-10 Showtime series starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers) are a long way behind us now, thank God. But at Channel 5, they seem to disagree. In its universe – not to mention that of Eve Hedderwick Turner, the writer of its new drama, Anne Boleyn (1 June, 9pm) – it is as if Wolf Hall never happened. This series’ only original contribution to fictional Tudorology is that Anne Boleyn and her equally ill-fated brother, George, are both played by black actors (Jodie Turner-Smith and Paapa Essiedu respectively).

I started feeling queasy early on, when a heavily pregnant Anne took delivery of a parcel. “The first full English language Bible!” she cooed, with all the excitement of a spoiled girl who’s about to go mad in Loewe. The dialogue is all like this: explanatory, inert, somewhat ugly. In this version of the Boleyn story, Anne is pure Mean Girl, so sharp you could file your nails on her. Personally, I don’t need characters to be likeable; I have said before that the word “relatable” makes me want to tear out my hair. But in this instance, Anne’s one-note nastiness, presented without context, works forcefully against our feeling any sympathy for her, even as the scaffold approaches.

As for her tinny proto-feminism, it’s just ridiculous: stapled on, like a price tag. I laughed out loud when she advised Thomas Cromwell (Barry Ward), who was about to pinch the monasteries’ cash, that she knew some “remarkable thinkers with inspiring visions of how to put the income to good use to educate a new generation”. Eh? Was she the Tudor Gwyneth Paltrow now? And if so, does this mean all the candles in her bedchamber are scented? (“I’m calling this one: Sage, Marjoram and the King’s Codpiece.”)

[see also: Keir Starmer played Piers Morgan at his own game and won]

Turner-Smith and Essiedu are good actors, but they’ve so little to work with here (Essiedu, in particular, is completely wasted). Even the props are corny: a document Anne is forced to sign looks like something you’d see in a Blackpool waxworks museum (think Hallmark calligraphy on speed). Every time we see her in a nightgown, one shoulder will invariably be sexily revealed. If she eats a pomegranate, she will do so s-l-o-w-l-y and with lip-smacking relish, the better that the audience will think of sex and blood (though all I could worry about was what the Tudors used for dental floss). Television that relies for its effects on bad, portentous dreams – the kind that have the dreamer sitting bolt upright in bed – are inevitably threadbare (see also: circling crows, animal skulls, fingers pricked on needles). You might as well flash a neon sign announcing that you’ve no confidence whatsoever in your own storytelling.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

I suppose I’m content to imagine that Henry (Mark Stanley) liked Anne to press on his windpipe during sex; their biting and mock-throttling certainly seems to be all of a piece with the fear and loathing that surely lurked in every corner of every panelled room the court ever inhabited. But I struggle with the notion that she would ever have said to the king, “I have only ever been a good partner to you.” What next? A weekly couple’s counselling session with Thomas Cranmer? (Further deployment for the scented candles!)

Not that I will worry about any of these things for long. When Wolf Hall was made into a television series, I was haunted by Claire Foy’s Anne; even now, I can conjure up in my mind the cold, slow-ticking minutes before the end. In Anne Boleyn, I liked the screeching peacocks and the roaming ferrets, the sinister swish of the oars of the barge that takes the queen to the Tower. But everything else, only hours after I finished watching it, is already half-forgotten. There was a blindfold, and a sword – but this, I knew already…

Content from our partners
Transport is the core of levelling up
The forgotten crisis: How businesses can boost biodiversity
Small businesses can be the backbone of our national recovery

Anne Boleyn 
Channel 5

[see also: I thought I was over the naive Nineties optimism of Friends. The reunion proved me wrong]

This article appears in the 02 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West