‘Anne Boleyn’, with Jodie Turner-Smith, brings a modern twist to an often misunderstood historical figure
Television is said to be getting weirder and stranger, but even by those standards Channel 5 has always been pretty weird. Launched in 1997 (with the Spice Girls on hand), it has grown to become the UK’s fifth terrestrial channel and the first in almost 15 years. In 2011, publishing mogul and former pornographer Richard Desmond bought the channel in a film that caused a stir in the media concerned. He increased the programming budget, which included the relaunch Big Brother, and went hard on the kind of programming that could best be described as vulgar. Even though he sold Channel 5 in 2014, the stench of Desmond remained, with illustrious shows like Can’t pay? We will win!, Negotiating the Brits on the Benefits, and Celebrities: what happened to your face? The latter show was eventually taken off their schedule after one of the celebrities featured on it, TV presenter and reality star Charlotte Crosby, called them on social media.
The other thing that Channel 5 is known for is royalty-related programming. Do you want a quick-made special documentary on the Sussex-Cambridges war that was clearly commissioned, shot and edited in the span of two weeks? They’ve got you covered. Do you feel like there aren’t enough hours of the day devoted to programming Fergie, Duchess of York? Channel 5 too. Their great love, however, is Anne Boleyn. It’s not exactly hard to find programming related to the infamous and highly controversial second wife of Henry VIII. Channel 5’s own editor once admitted he was so fascinated by Boleyn that he would give the green light to any show about her. But it’s been a while since they did, and people have really been paying attention. Moving forward Anne Boleyn, a three-part series that has garnered a lot of buzz for two reasons: first, it’s an original drama, which Channel 5 doesn’t tend to do much of, and second, the title role is played by Jodie Turner Smith.
I won’t bore you by talking about the usual racist bullshit the cast of Turner-Smith stirred up because she deserves better than that. Still, her presence in that role clearly signaled something interesting, far more fascinating than what Channel 5 typically offers. Were they ready to rise to the occasion and give an extremely charismatic actress her due with a role to match her talent? Or would they talk to Channel 5 about it?
Anne Boleyn takes place in the five months preceding its execution. She is a woman in a precarious situation, a player of power who is only too aware that her crown is slipping. Henry oscillates between fury and fear of his queen, the court is full of whispers about his alleged deviations, and there is a new girl in the neighborhood in the form of Jane Seymour. Still a stranger to the machinations of the Tudor court, even as the wife of Henry VIII, Anne may be doomed, but she is not ready to give up without a fight.
It doesn’t take long in episode one for Anne Boleyn to establish itself as not this kind of historical drama. After waking up from a nightmare, Anne walks to her husband’s bedroom, wakes him up with an erotic choke, and then lashes out at his pregnant wife. The notion of a historical drama getting sexy is hardly unknown in a post.Rome world where the last two decades of the genre have been largely defined by their willingness to kick boots. Indeed, Boleyn’s story has been widely regarded as a prime example of this trend, whether it’s the hugely exciting Showtime series. The Tudors or any Philippa Gregory novel, the latter further propelling Boleyn’s image as a heartless schemer. Seriously, Gregory doesn’t like Anne Boleyn, and it’s a little strange how much she played the widely refuted slander that she was sleeping with her brother. Novelist Robin Maxwell has even refused to present Gregory’s massive bestseller. The other Boleyn girl because she found her characterization of Anne to be “vicious” and “unbearable”.
Anne Boleyn is clearly on the side of his eponymous lead. She is thoroughly “the other” in court in almost every way and no one will let her forget her, but she also wields her power, gentle as it is to the king, with an iron fist. In one scene, she kisses Jane Seymour, her latest rival for Henry’s sake, who is played by young and wide-eyed Lola Petticrew. Once she walks away, Anne smiles and says she understands what Henry sees in her. It’s a fascinating moment, somewhere between an obvious sexing of the material and the subversion of that much ridiculed image of Boleyn as the wicked seductress of the century. This mainly works, if only because Jodie Turner-Smith has full control over this material. She is witty and sultry, but barely hides her rage at her weakened status as a queen. Paapa Essiedu of I can destroy you plays his brother George with a real acuity that makes his scenes with Anne one of the most underrated moments of the first episode. You fully understand how, seemingly against all odds, the Boleyn family made their way to the highest echelons of power.
There is money behind Anne Boleyn but not BBC money, so don’t expect Wolves Room greatness levels, but these limitations offer creative opportunities. We feel the disconcerting languor of life at court, pampered but still besieged by the whims of the king and his men yes. Not much is happening but it symbolizes everything, and the claustrophobia is palpable. Everything is also somewhat simplified, with much of the broader political machinations omitted or minimized in order to focus on the newly added gender and racial tensions that set Anne apart as an issue to be addressed. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad decision. Anne Boleyn essentially became the historical dramatic version of Dracula, a vessel for creators to explore various ideas and concerns in their own way. This Anne Boleyn is a modern woman in every sense of the word, and she is reminiscent of the way history repeats itself. How often do we see stories of powerful women first celebrated as vibrant and necessary before being brought down to earth as “difficult” or “harmful”? (And yes, the makers of Anne Boleyn There’s been a lot of questioning about Meghan Markle.) The story may unfold in cycles, but our performances should be riskier than that, and Channel 5 has made a valiant effort here. Maybe they will invest more in this type of programming and remove all the bad shame bullshit.
Anne Boleyn ended this week on Channel 5. No US release date has yet been announced.
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Source of header image: Photo by Emma McIntyre // Getty Images