Life in June should revolve around summer pleasures – the Wimbledon final, a cold glass of Pimms, various cremated meats still haemhorraging on the inside – but these really depend on the sun having his hat on, and it seems hats are just not happening this season. Thank heavens, then, for the telly treat that is The White Queen, the gorgeous BBC series based on Philippa Gregory’s novels about the Wars of the Roses and the women behind them.
Here comes the history part, concentrate – the Houses of York and Lancaster are locked in a battle for the throne, with the lucky royal recliner currently sat on by swoonsome Max Irons’ King Edward IV. Along comes a beautiful commoner, Elizabeth Woodville (played by brain-meltingly gorgeous newbie Rebecca Ferguson) who charms and marries the King, much to everyone’s chagrin. Cue lots of fighting, scheming and backstabbing as the various ladies strive to get their own hubbies and sons into power.
So to hell with ‘summer’ - shut the curtains, boil the kettle and get on board the medieval blockbuster train. There’s loads here to love, specifically –
1. It's About Women
A TV show that’s focuses on women? That’s not a soap opera? Yes please! The White Queen is about not just the titular monarch, but the ladies around her, too – her mother, Jacquetta (Janet McTeer), her rival Anne Neville (Faye Marsay) and pious nut job Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale). “The Plantagenet period was a time of extraordinary women, says Caroline Goodall, who plays Duchess Cecily, King Edward’s domineering mother. “These were exciting years of change and women were up front and centre.”
2. The Writing
In adapting Gregory’s novels, lead writer Emma Frost has taken three of the books in the series and wrangled them into one compelling ten-part drama with very high stakes and some cracking scenes. Just married? Check out Jacquetta’s thorough sorting out of Elizabeth’s new mother-in-law, Duchess Cecily, at the end of the first episode for some tips on dealing with a tricky matriarch. Things get darker and darker as the power struggle hots up and the heads begin to roll - and oh, do they roll...
3. The Costumes
You can’t beat a bit of period fashion for the ‘ooh, ahh’ factor, and The White Queen has it in spades. Costume Designer Nic Ede’s gorgeous creations make medieval England look like Paris Fashion Week, and the cast couldn’t get enough of them. “I loved all of it,” said Ferguson, “every morning, putting on these fantastic dresses.” Goodall agrees, saying that “the attention to detail was astounding, everything was faithful to the period.”
4. The Man Candy
There was a collective swoon across the Twittersphere on Sunday night when Max Irons’ Edward picked up his newborn daughter for the first time – a gorgeous man holding a baby will get ‘em every time, but a gorgeous king holding a princess who should have been a prince and loving her anyway hits like a bullet, it seems. We’ve seen plenty of Max with his top off, too. “Being naked in front of 50 people took some getting used to,” Irons said, “but by the end I was walking around starkers!” *PICKS JAW UP OFF FLOOR* With David Oakes, Aneurin Barnard, and Tom McKay also in the mix, the remainder of the series is set to be very easy on the eye indeed.
5. James Frain As Warwick
“It’s easy to judge him by the standards of our time,” says James Frain of his character, the power-hungry Kingmaker, Lord Warwick, “but it was a very, very different world from our own.” Frain’s performance is brilliant, from his ‘Machiavellian scheming’ face, to his ferocious anger when things don’t go Warwick’s way. The disdain with which he tells Elizabeth that “We’ve no need for scheming women” in episode two has got us practicing our Warwick-esque put downs.
6. Janet McTeer As Jacquetta
Playing Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta, was a pleasure, it seems, for Oscar-nominated actress Janet McTeer, because she and got on so well with Rebecca Ferguson. “We have such a lovely time together,” she said, “we just howl like idiots because we have a very similar sense of humour.” In-between guffaws, McTeer puts in a brilliant performance as the witchy woman steering her daughter through a tricky political battleground and handily helping her put a hex on her enemies when required – aren’t mums great?
7. The Sets And Locations
The White Queen used 250 sets in 120 days, which is a lot, and Executive Producer John Griffin knows they made a wise move in choosing to film on location in Bruges. “There was such an enormous wealth of 15th Century locations,” he said, “that we quickly realised we didn’t need to think in terms of dozens on CGI backdrops to create our world.” Production designer Martyn John also created a variety of dazzling sets, including a fake indoor forest made using 200 coppiced silver birch trees. “Martyn has done an amazing job,” said McTeer. “He just has an incredible eye.”
8. The Witchy Business
Curses, charms, visions – these medieval ladies used any means necessary to protect their families and thwart their enemies. With Jacquetta claiming that her line is descended “from the river goddess Melusina,” there are plenty of witchy workings going on in the Woodville household. Stay tuned for the cooking up of a pretty nasty storm in episode three...
9. Duchess Cecily (And Her Hats)
“She fights Elizabeth and her family from the shadows,” said Caroline Goodall of Duchess Cecily, “scheming to depose Edward in favour of her malleable son, George.” And she does it in some pretty incredible headgear that has to be seen to be believed. “Over the years, I have played characters in many period dramas,” said Goodall, “though none with hats as big as Duchess Cecily!”
10. The Hair And Make-Up
As if people as beautiful as Rebecca Ferguson and Max Irons need any help in the hair and make-up department, but Ferguson’s hair was apparently the longest real hair wig that the wig studio had ever made, since nobody cut their hair in medieval England. Apparently a wig was toyed with for Irons, too. Easiest of all when it came to make-up was Amanda Hale, whose character Margaret Beaufort was no great beauty. “It was my job to look awful,” she said, “so no worries after late nights and one too many Glühweins!”
By Nick Barron