Saturday 6 July 2013

The White Queen reviewed by Sarah Gristwood

Rebecca Fergusson as Elizabeth Woodville "The White Queen"

First night, first episode of the BBC’s The White Queen, and I waited with more trepidation than anticipation, quite honestly. On the one hand I wanted it to be a hit. Declaration of vested interest here: having written a book (Blood Sisters) about the women behind the Wars of the Roses, if the whole world suddenly went Woodville-wild, it would be good news for me.

On the other, having spent years researching these women, could I bear it if their story was turned into a travesty? Well, The White Queen has been slated in the press, over matters of historical accuracy. But do I feel inclined to join in the chorus of disapproval? Not entirely.

Yes, the series tells the stories of Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort and Anne Neville in the highly coloured terms of story. Fairy story, almost, you might say. The point is, that version of events was current by the early sixteenth century. 

Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth Woodville and Anne Neville
The series has been criticised for showing zip fasteners on anachronistic corduroy costumes.  Rubber soles on boots and visible drainpipes. Yes – but are these the sorts of historical inaccuracies that really matter most? I don’t think so, actually. When The Tudors provoked the same debate, I didn’t mind that the costumes were slightly out of their time. I didn’t even much mind that they amalgamated two sisters of Henry VIII.

I did mind, however, when – in a scene set circa 1530 – they presented the printing press as a brand new discovery, though in fact Caxton had brought it here almost half a century before. That’s where I think the arguments about bringing history to a wider audience fall down on their head: can a picture of the early sixteenth century which suggests the printed word was not yet invented have use or validity? That’s where the price of (as Anthony Beevor put it) ‘histotainment’ may be too high to pay.

But if you ask whether The White Queen commits these kind of sins, then to the best of my knowledge the answer is no – and I put in the caveat advisedly. The sources for this particular period are notoriously patchy – worse than for some earlier ages, oddly – and patchier than ever for the women, who fought on no battlefields and passed no laws.

A lot of what passes for contemporary sources are in fact chronicles from the early sixteenth century, by which time the mythologizing had already begun – but ignore them, and all too often you find yourself with no sources at all; forced to allow these extraordinary women to remain forever hidden from history.

I watched the first episode with my husband, a professional film critic, and half way through he turned to me and said, in tones of incredulity: ‘Is any of this actually true?’ (It’s the same question the American producers asked Michael Hirst when he was pitching The Tudors, coincidentally.) 

Richard, Edward and George

The series is of course based on three novels by Philippa Gregory, which means that she (more convincingly than the series always shows) had already done the work of turning the sometimes challenging figures of her three female protagonists into heroines for the 21st century.

That job would have been comparatively easy with Elizabeth Woodville, the eponymous ‘White Queen’ - a commoner whose beauty captured a king’s heart. Mills  & Boon meets the Kate Middleton story. Margaret Beaufort isn’t quite so easy – though, heaven knows, there’s no lack of human interest in her story.  Married off at 12 and a widowed mother at 13, with all her ambitions centred on her one son, Henry.

But much of our information about Margaret dates from later in her life, when ‘My Lady the King’s Mother’ was a power behind Henry VII’s throne. That brings the risk she’s remembered as an elderly battleaxe, famed for her religious austerity. Still, the materials are there, if you slant them properly. Earlier writers on Margaret Beaufort tended to stress her piety and resignation, but it is that ambition which works better today: and that’s what the series is playing up, wisely.

 Anne Neville presents a different problem, though her tale is even more extraordinary. A Yorkist daughter married off to the Lancastrian Prince of Wales to cement her father’s unlikely alliance with that dynasty; widowed within months; passed back into the custody of the Yorkists and kept disguised as a kitchenmaid for fear lest her large fortune should get away. And that is even before she became wife to Richard III . . . 

But the trouble is that Anne’s is a victim’s story, and if there is one thing we want from our heroines now, it is agency. Spirit, determination, activity.  Philippa Gregory says she decided that at a certain point her Anne would seize control of her own destiny; and of course it is possible the real Anne did the same thing. But the scant surviving evidence doesn’t tell us, sadly. 

But the tale at the heart of tv’s episode 1 – the oh-so-romantic meeting of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV under the oak tree? The one that had critics crying out on the absurdity? It’s in Hall’s Chronicle, first printed in 1552. Thomas More’s The History of King Richard III, much earlier in the sixteenth century, already has Elizabeth as the virtuous heroine who declares if she is too low to be the king’s wife, she is too high to be his mistress. And the tale of her defending her virtue with his dagger can be found in the work of a writer who died in the 1480s. It seems unfair to blame the scriptwriter, frankly.  In a work of non-fiction, you’d make the point that these writers did not necessarily share our views on the desirability of objective factual history . . . But you can’t put footnotes on tv.

Do I believe the fifteenth century court looked as shiny as a Timotei ad? No, not really; and these bare bodies are so sparkling clean you could eat your dinner off them – something they’ll probably get around to in, ooh, episode 7, maybe. (Or not: there’s quite a lot of rumpy pumpy but of a distinctly anodyne variety. Fifty Shades of White Rose this isn’t – they’ve shot extra shove and grunt for American pay tv.) But if you look at the glowing colours of a medieval manuscript, you realise there’s a potential trap in just heading the other way.

So what about the real first duty of a tv drama – to provide sheer watching pleasure? Three episodes down with seven to go, and I’m enjoying it more as it goes on, and they allow the story to develop just a little in complexity. To allow a few of the machinations that usefully remind us this, at the time, was the stuff of realpolitik, rather than the neat allegiances sanitised by the distance of history.  It’s arguable that in approaching the past through the medium of television, you are always supping with the devil, and should indeed use a long spoon. But then, for heaven’s sake, just relax and enjoy the icecream sundae.


Sue Bursztynski said...

It's true we only tend to think of Margaret Beaufort as the old battle-axe(though as a mother at 13, she can't have been THAT old when Henry took the throne. In fact, younger than Elizabeth Woodville? But I have read Blood Sisters and thought you did rather a good job of writing about the young Margaret.

I've seen only an episode or two of The Tudors and found it difficult to swallow. I don't think I saw the episode with the printing press, but of course it came in during Edward IV's reign, yes? And Anthony Woodville was an early patron... :)

JO said...

I'm such a pedant when it comes to historical accuracy it gets in the way of enjoying programmes like this. I know it's a failing, and I probably miss wonderful stuff (I do spend the time reading, so it's hardly wasted time). But there are so many wonderful, true, historical tales, and so much accurate information available, I find it astonishing that 'mistakes' creep in.

Peggy West said...

I think that the events of history are highly interpretive. I don't care about zippers and drainpipes showing but I might feel a jolt at the misplacement of the printing press. (I'm in the USA and have seen only one episode of The White Queen-- on Youtube.) I believe less and less in the term historical accuracy because whether an object or an idea is accurately placed or not depends on place and who you're talking to. I know this from my research on the invention of the sewing machine. When I watched The Tudors, I wondered when women became so willing, was doubtful, kept thinking about it, and now believe that that's what made the story work.

Sue Purkiss said...

A very balanced review, Sarah! I'm not too fussed about minor inaccuracies - especially since, as you point out, we really can never know exactly how things were. I did get a bit fed up in the first couple of episodes where, every two minutes, a device had to be found to explain why one or other of the characters was explaining the back story - but that is a real difficulty when you're compressing a lengthy book and a v complex period of history. I also roll my eyes a bit when Elizabeth and her mum waltz off into the woods to solve a problem by pulling a piece of string - if it works so well, why don't they do it all the time? (It would be useful, wouldn't it? Hm, nobody seems to want to publish my new book... oh well, off to the woods!')But generally, I'm enjoying it. I do find Margaret Beaufort an interesting charater.

Kate 98 said...

I think some people are too harsh, to be clear this drama was created for Sunday night entertainment, not to educate, and what, are the BBC really expected to strip down buildings to the bare minimum just to create a sense of authenticity? No. This programme may not be historically accurate in all its aspects but the initial facts are there they are not simply creating their own story from nothing. I believe they have struck a creative balance between the entertainment factor and the historical factor and anyone with an ounce of intelligence should be able to distinguish between a factual historical programme and one made to entertain (based upon historical events) I believe this collection of critics is being un-fairly cruel to the BBC as a production team and I am a personal fan of the show. There target audience is not historical experts nor is it to educate their target audience is people that want an entertaining costume drama to watch on the sofa on a Sunday night. Finally, if you do not like the story line, if you are going to sit there and nit pick at all the minorly unrealistic factors in set and costume i can declare that 1) you are not enjoying the programme so turn it off and stop moaning and 2) you don't understand the point of it, for goodness sake it was made to entertain allow them some artistic license I think they've done a wonderful job with it.

Anonymous said...

There are a number of contemporary chronicles from the period of the Wars- the trouble is that many are slanted with a Yorkist bias. Many seem to people seem to grumble about how the nasty Tudors vilified poor Richard but they don't realize what adept propagandists the Yorkists were themselves- especially Edward IV and his father...