A costume drama? Bound to be too camp or too dull.
Or, in the case of ‘The Tudors’, both. But, despite the muscular, glowering presence of that series’ Thomas Cromwell, James Frain – this time playing kingmaker Lord Warwick – ‘The White Queen’ strikes a fine balance between the two, working as political thriller, love story and rip-roaring historical drama.
So what’s ‘The White Queen’ about?
In short, the Wars of the Roses, the fifteenth century battles between Lancashire and Yorkshire over the kingdom’s throne. It centres on Elizabeth Woodville, a Lancastrian commoner who outrages the nation when she snares King Edward IV of York. Her family have distinctly mixed feelings about the marriage, the king’s court is appalled and her rivals for the crown begin to scheme. Philippa Gregory – who wrote 'The Cousin's War', the cylce of novels this is based on – has cooked up a ripe old recipe: a far cry from dimly recalled, dully delivered school history lesssons.
Philippa Gregory? But she write 'The Other Boleyn Girl' and the film version of that was lame.
True, but here screenwriter Emma Frost’s adaptation has ten episodes to fully and faithfully explore the issues and narratives. Plus, there’s no Natalie Portman or Scarlett Johannsson-style stunt-miscasting to distract you.
Will I recognise anyone in it?
Probably not, which is part of the joy of it. While the older roles are filled with reliable character actors like Robert Pugh and Janet McTeer (as Elizabeth’s ambitious parents), the younger Woodville family and Edward’s youthful court are peopled with relative unknowns. So whether it’s former Swedish soap star Rebecca Ferguson (Elizabeth), Max ‘son of Jeremy’ Irons (King Edward), Aneurin Barnard (the future Richard III), or Faye Marsay (Elizabeth’s rival, Anne Neville), when they make it big, you can say you saw them here first.
Won’t it boil down to being about the blokes?
Actually, no. The BBC's omnipresent trailer plays on exactly those fears before revealing the key players to be women. And the series itself bears this out – although it doesn’t pretend that life was easy for these medieval women: some have to use witchcraft to pursue their ends, while one near-rape in the opening episode has consequences which may not be palatable to modern audiences, but reflect the realities of sexual politics, royal power and cultural expectation back then.
Well, ‘Game of Thrones’ has just finished and I am casting around for something else…
Perfect. For all your dynastic war, incestuous relationship, political intrigue and girl power needs – albeit filtered through a cleaner, softer focused BBC1 lens – ‘The White Queen’ is for you.
‘The White Queen’, BBC1. Starts Sun Jun 16, 9pm.
Read more about 'The White Queen'
The cast is big enough and varied enough to accommodate a range of styles and approaches. And it’s evocatively filmed, all the better for avoiding CGI (so far at least). If you know the story, you’ll know you’re in for quite a ride. And if not? Well, the same applies.