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6 March 2024

Mary & George is improbable, overblown and really quite rude

Despite its melodrama and cliches, this series about sex in the royal bedchamber is just a little bit mesmerising.

By Rachel Cooke

The royal bedchamber holds a stupidly fierce fascination for the makers of films and television, in part, I suppose, because we can never know the extent to which its rank and gross sheets were twisted by this (or that) encounter – or even if the tumbling in question took place at all. Pull back the heavily embroidered counterpane – here is the Field of the Cloth of Gold in a washable, king-size format, the props department having thoroughly excelled itself – and let the writer go wild. Bums ahoy, folks, and don’t forget that the intimacy director’s job is so much easier when everything happens by candlelight.

Mary & George (Sky Atlantic), which is about George Villiers (Nicholas Galitzine), a tufted hottie who enjoyed the patronage of James I (Tony Curran), is very much on this territory. Dear old James, of course, had a number of close friendships with men, and Villiers (later the Duke of Buckingham) was, we know, a particular favourite: a man for whose family the monarch would do just about anything. But in this series, we’re way beyond favouritism. Villiers has a hearty appetite for boys, and his ambitious mother, Mary, knows it: in this telling, she’s basically his pimp. When she talks to her gorgeous, pouting son of “the unwashable excrement of eternal shame”, she’s referring not to his sexuality, but to being broke. Headboards will bang, preferably those in Apethorpe Palace, the King’s favourite Northamptonshire residence.

In normal circumstances, I’d be far from gripped by yet another historical drama that thinks it’s being daring simply by having everyone sound utterly 21st-century and using the F-word a lot (tracing this genre’s family tree, we might look first to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, and then, less soberly, to Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2018 film about Queen Anne, The Favourite). But I am gripped to this – I cleave to it, like mistletoe on an ancient hawthorn – and for one reason: Julianne Moore, who plays Mary.

She makes its clichés – its cliff-like ruffs and its gobstopper-size pearl earrings, its rattling carriages and its quick-fire potty talk – just a little bit mesmerising. First, you wonder what on Earth this Oscar-winning movie star is doing, shouting at Simon Russell Beale (who appears briefly as her husband, Sir George Villiers) and stamping through the English mud. And then you gawp at, among other extravagant outfits, her latest hat, out of which pheasants’ feathers sprout like tall poplars, and think how completely extraordinary she looks. Here is a miniature by the artist Nicholas Hilliard brought vividly to life.

Mary Villiers is like marble: pale and hard and cold to the touch. She came from nothing, and her clambering, once Sir George has snuffed it, is neither decorous nor discreet. A new husband, Sir Thomas Compton (hello, Sean Gilder, another great British character actor), is found in not much more time than it takes to roast a hog – the latter being one of the dishes on the menu when the King and his retinue arrive to stay at Compton’s house. Not that the King eats much. He’s closeted upstairs with the Earl of Somerset (Laurie Davidson), leaving Mary to prowl the corridors in the hope of an encounter. On a landing, she grasps that the two have had a row, and that they’ll make it up in bed – and a light bulb clicks on in her head (or a flaming torch, this being Jacobean times). Ping! Perhaps all she has to do to secure her family’s preferment is to stick an apple in George’s mouth, and serve him up on a silver platter.

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The plotting, like the sex, is madly overblown. But then, the lives of James I and both Villiers were hardly uneventful, and if the dialogue (the series’ writer is DC Moore) is ridiculously improbable, it’s also enjoyably peppy. How marvellous to hear Moore spitting out her lines, which are really quite rude at times (the King, she announces, is “so cock-struck it hurts”). How joyful to see her playing opposite the stars of the National Theatre, the RSC and, er, Shameless. I hope she enjoyed herself, and that having got a taste for our crazy old island, we’ll see more of her here very soon. I’ve googled Mary & George’s locations, and all I can say is: who needs Hollywood when you’ve got Crowhurst and Harpenden?

Mary & George 
Sky Atlantic

[See also: The Jury: Murder Trial review: the misogyny of Britain]

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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Bust Britain

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