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.”)
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.
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…
This article appears in the 02 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West