Anne Boleyn comes to Channel 5 as thriller told through queen’s eyes

·6-min read

Cultural imaginings of Anne Boleyn – beginning for most with the primary school refrain of “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” – often view the 16th-century monarch solely through her husband, Henry VIII, and the grisly end she met as wife number two.

It is a trend that Channel 5’s upcoming drama is looking to subvert. The three-part series – a psychological thriller counting down the panic-filled and cloistered final months of Boleyn’s life – airs later this month, seen largely through the eyes of Boleyn herself. Created by the female-focused company Fable, the makers of the Bafta-winning east London-set film Rocks, the series aims to reset our understanding of Boleyn as a strong female figure fighting miscarriage and claims of adultery, rather than a maligned cliche of a temptress and a cheat.

The show has also sparked much debate online, not least for its casting of a black Anne Boleyn. The Queen & Slim actor Jodie Turner-Smith, who is of Jamaican descent, plays a regal yet steely Boleyn, with Paapa Essiedu – the British actor of Ghanaian heritage, recently Bafta-nominated for the BBC hit I May Destroy You – portraying her brother, George.

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Turner-Smith previously said that Boleyn’s life resonated with her as a new mother, and that it was a story she could “relate to as a black woman … it shows how little has changed in terms of our desire to tear down powerful women”. She told the Guardian that “the idea that a woman with power is a threat or must be destroyed is nothing new and somehow it seems to never get old”.

“Look at the last four years in America, and how certain politicians would speak about women that dared to be assertive or that demonstrated their intelligence, their power,” adds Turner-Smith. “You think about the term ‘nasty woman’ [which Donald Trump used to refer to Hillary Clinton], and what that meant, and to whom. Not to mention the ways in which society demonstrates its desire to make women powerless. Every year we are marching for our right to have agency over our bodies, our reproductive health, our lives. And when you add the mistreatment that is a result of inequality and racism, it becomes all the more complicated and unjust for women of colour.”

Turner-Smith adds that the scriptspoignantly told this story about the woman at the centre of what has essentially become a sort of myth. We also worked very closely with historian Dan Jones and I found that Anne’s actual history is so rich with information about what could possibly have made her tick. I really leaned on that more so than any of the amazing performances that came before me, especially because I really wanted to make it my own.”

While there has been a trend for colour-blind casting in recent years, with the likes of the Dev Patel-led David Copperfield and Netflix’s Bridgerton, the casting director Kharmel Cochrane told the Guardian that her approach with Anne Boleyn was, instead, “identity conscious”, with the “badass” Turner-Smith standing out for her outspoken nature.

“I don’t like the idea of things feeling tokenistic, that is patronising,” says Cochrane. “She doesn’t have red hair. But I cast Jodie because I categorically don’t think there is anyone who could play our Anne Boleyn better – she’s fierce, complex and passionate and radiates all the qualities we believe Anne possessed. And then, if you’re going to have Jodie, would we then say that we’re not conscious of the fact that she is black? That seems dangerous – you’re assuming that people don’t have their own identity. In the casting process I had to say to some of the actors: you’re not here to tick a box. This isn’t a Benetton advert.”

It is a sentiment echoed by Thalissa Teixeira, who is of Brazilian and British descent and plays Boleyn’s handmaiden, Madge Shelton, and who has much experience on stage, including Othello for the National Theatre and Yerma for the Young Vic. “For a long time in theatre we’ve had casts of different races in these roles,” she says. “We’re not just telling that story, we’re showing how much societally we have changed. It’s as much my history as anyone else’s. It’s making more space – it’s not taking over space.”

Creative Tudor retellings are on trend, with Hilary Mantel completing her Wolf Hall trilogy last year with The Mirror and the Light, and Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, a novel inspired by Shakespeare’s son who died aged 11, winning the Women’s prize for fiction in 2020. On stage, Six the Musical reimagined Henry’s wives as a pop group. However, where race is involved, creative licence seems to cause more consternation. And while figures such as Anne and Madge were not black, some online critics have seemingly struggled with the existence of black people in the era altogether.

For Dr Miranda Kaufmann, the author of the book Black Tudors: The Untold Story, which is also in development for TV, people who are “up in arms [about this kind of casting] are completely ignorant about the black presence in the period. John Blanke was a black trumpeter under Henry VII and Henry VIII, although he had left court before Anne came in, and Elizabeth I had a black boy in her retinue, and received two embassies from Morocco. There were black Tudor sailors, a silk weaver, a needlemaker, a seamstress. The black Tudors weren’t aristocracy or gentry – in the court setting you were more likely to encounter them as servants. But they were there.”

As for the series, it feels confidently feminist, with the camera rarely straying from Turner-Smith. “She was murdered by her husband, it wasn’t just a downfall,” says Fable’s founder, Faye Ward. “We want people to think about her and what happened to her in a different way. People don’t refer to Henry VIII as a domestic abuser, or a psychopath.”

Says writer Eve Hedderwick-Turner of her debut TV project: “[Anne] wouldn’t have thought of herself as a feminist, but she did naturally have this sense that she was equal to men, and as worthy of power. Her place in the room felt earned.” The director Lynsey Miller also builds up a sense of literal and mental claustrophobia to create a story of being “trapped, always. Eyes are always on you, the walls are always listening, squalor and excess live side by side”.

Anne Boleyn will not appeal to those looking for a traditional Tudor retelling, but it does do something daring, and chilling, to the tale. “Of course we’ve seen some negative chatter, which we fully expected, but we have also seen a huge amount of positivity,” says Ward. “As a nation we are very protective over our history – we expect to see these historical figures portrayed in a certain way on screen. [However] we firmly believe once people get to see the show, they will wholeheartedly embrace how we are telling Anne’s story.”

Perhaps it will also encourage audiences to look to the history books – and to question their own discomfort on matters of both race and gender.

Anne Boleyn is coming later this month to Channel 5

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