I’m not sure that we really needed yet another TV series about Anne Boleyn. Her story’s been done to death (pun intended), and, consequently, most of the reaction to this has been either moaning that it’s old hat or else trying desperately to find a new angle on the story by talking about “othering”. Obviously that’s not the fault of either the actors or the scriptwriters, but it’s hard to make a big impression when you’re covering a story than everyone’s heard a zillion times before. There are so many neglected areas of history which Channel 5 could have chosen to cover instead.
On the plus side, this is a proper historical drama. It’s no Versailles or The Tudors: it does actually stick to the real people and the real series of events. Well, main events, anyway. It’s also positive that it’s looking at things from Anne’s point of view, and that it’s showing her as a deeply intelligent woman who championed the Reformation, rather than just as a scheming tart who stole another woman’s fella.
However, the dialogue’s really rather naff. It tries to be clever, but doesn’t always manage it. Some of it’s overloaded with metaphors (there are a lot of metaphors, symbols and omens) – ” Ooh, Jane, if you don’t know the rules, you shouldn’t play the game” – and some of it sounds like someone trying to be Jane Austen but not succeeding. Jodie Turner-Smith’s really doing her best with it – her delivery of some of Anne’s bitchier lines reminded me of Joan Collins in Dynasty – but it’s just not that well-written. The Boleyns all get some good lines – George and Jane Boleyn both come across very well, George as his sister’s chief supporter and Jane as a thoroughly nasty piece of work, and Cromwell does too, but Henry’s character didn’t come across at all. And what on earth was that scene with Anne kissing Jane Seymour supposed to be about? Jane, incidentally, is presented as a simpering little ninny. Oh dear. I thought we’d got past that idea.
The costumes are great. It’s nice to see Bolton Castle being used for most of the indoor shots: I’ve been there a couple of times. And the series is all right: I’ve seen far worse. But this subject’s been covered so many times before that any new series would need to be absolutely outstanding to make a really big impression, and it isn’t.
There’s been a lot of talk about the casting of a black actress to play a white historical figure. There’s actually been a lot of talk about casting lately, and it’s getting a bit silly. A non-Latina actress was pressurised into giving up the role of Maria in West Side Story; Russell T Davies said that straight actors shouldn’t play gay roles; the casting of British actress Cynthia Eriwo, rather than an American actress, as Harriet Tubman was criticised; people have questioned the casting of a Catholic actress as the Jewish heroine of Ridley Road; and, to cap it all, people moaned that Will Smith shouldn’t have been cast as Richard Williams because their skin isn’t exactly the same shade of black. What next? No-one should play a member of the Crawley family in Downton Abbey unless they’ve got a title?
Having said all that, I didn’t think it was appropriate to cast Helen Mirren, in her 70s, as Catherine the Great in her 30s, and that thing BBC 2 did with women playing male Shakespearean roles was daft. So I suppose there are limits. But let’s not get too hung up about “representative” casting, or we’re going to end up with roles being cast based on box-ticking rather on acting ability. Just as long as there’s a level playing field. If it’s OK for a black actress to play a white character or a gay actor to play a straight character, it’s OK for a white actress to play a black character or a straight actor to play a gay character, unless it’s a role where ethnicity or something else is a big part of the storyline.
What I’m not really getting is this waffle in some areas of the media about how choosing Jodie Turner-Smith because she’s a black actress, rather than just because she’s a good actress, is “identity casting” which is showing how Anne Boleyn was “othered”. Er, what? How long has “other” being a verb? And no-one was “othered”. Favourites and factions came and went at court, and, in Henry VIII’s time, that was complicated by the religious turmoil and the desire for a male heir. When Anne lost favour, she didn’t have a party of supporters strong enough and loyal enough to stand up for her. Nor did numerous other people who fell foul of Henry. Joan of Navarre was accused of witchcraft, and Mary Beatrice of Modena was accused of bringing Jesuit priests to court to subvert James II. No-one talks about them being, er, “othered”.
The problem is that so much has been said about Anne Boleyn that people end up scratching around trying to think of any new angle on her story. It’s like some of the bizarre suggestions made in recent years about who killed the Princes in the Tower – everything there is to be said about the likely candidates has been said, so people come up with outlandish ideas just for the sake of saying something different.
Anyway, to get back to the actual programme, which has been rather overshadowed by the debate over the casting, it was, as I said, OK … but this period in history’s been covered so many times, both in dramas and in documentaries, that it needed to be absolutely amazing to be memorable. And it’s not bad, but amazing it isn’t.