The White Queen: Janet McTeer and James Frain shine in this visually stunning new costume drama from the BBC

by Matt D

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I blame The Tudors. Ever since the bodice-ripping drama appeared on Showtime in 2007 it ushered in a new genre which I like to describe as ‘sexy history.’ Since then we’ve seen shows like Spartacus, The Borgias and Da Vinci’s Demons follow suit, and now the BBC have gotten in on the act with The White Queen. The drama, based on three novels by Philippa Gregory, is a co-production between the BBC and American cable channel Starz. The epic programme, which will play out over ten weeks, tells the story of three women who were all heavily involved in The War of The Roses. Two of these women would go onto become Queen of England, while the third would later go on to be the mother of the King.

The opening instalment focuses on Elizabeth Woodville a widowed commoner, whose family are staunch Lancastrians. Elizabeth had married nobleman Sir John Grey, but when he was killed she was left with nothing and now her two sons have no inheritance. Early on in the episode, Elizabeth waits at the roadside in order to meet the new king, Edward IV, and plead with him to let her have her husband’s land so that her sons have something to live on. Edward’s cousin, and the so-called king-maker, Lord Warwick advises Edward against Elizabeth’s wishes as her late husband slaughtered many of his men. However, it is clear that Edward is incredibly attracted to Elizabeth and agrees to her wishes providing that he’ll be able to see her again. Elizabeth’s mother Jacquetta believes that her daughter should give herself to Edward, but only if there’s something in it for her. Jacquetta, who also possesses magic powers, is a social climber and will seemingly switch sides between York and Lancaster if it means her family has power. But Elizabeth’s father, Baron Rivers, is opposed to the match and feels that Elizabeth would be betraying her Lancastrian roots if she were to sleep with Edward. As Edward meets Elizabeth again, he tries to force himself on her but she denies him his carnal desires several times. As she threatens to slit her throat if he comes near her, Edward feels like a fool and leaves Elizabeth by herself. However, it appears as if Edward is intrigued by Elizabeth and eventually asks her to marry him.


Elizabeth and Edward are married in a secret ceremony that is only attended by her mother. Elizabeth later reveals her marriage to her brother Anthony, but the marriage was simply a ploy by Edward to get Elizabeth to sleep with him. Anthony also tells Elizabeth that Warwick wouldn’t let Edward marry a commoner and believes that Edward will later be forced to marry Princess Bona of France, in order to broker a peace treaty between the two countries. Anthony’s words are later confirmed when the Rivers family are invited to attend a meeting where Lord Warwick is expected to announce the engagement. But Edward goes against his uncle’s wishes and instead announces his marriage to Elizabeth to a stunned court. As Elizabeth’s family make their way to court, her mother warns her that there will be many that will curse the marriage and want it to fail. These doubters include Jacquetta’s Lancastrian acquaintance Lady Margaret Beaufort, who will later go on to give birth to the future Henry VII. Edward’s mother Duchess Cecily is another person who does’t approve of the match and threatens to disinherit her son. But Jacquetta warns Cecily that if she does this then she will be forced to reveal that Edward was the product of Cecily’s affair with an archer. The episode concludes with Elizabeth, who has magic powers of her own, having a vision in which a woman in red has Elizabeth’s blood on her hands.

The first thing to say about The White Queen is that it looks fantastic. The show definitely takes advantage of its Belgian locations and in particular the plethora of Gothic architecture that the country has to offer. Director James Kent, who previously worked on Inside Men, is able to present the captivating scenery in a way that lends itself well to the story. Kent is also able to add an air of magic to the scenes in which we witness Jacquetta’s sorcery and Elizabeth’s premonitions of the future. Meanwhile, veteran designer Nic Ede is able to present a vast array of period detail to the stunning costumes on display. However, one of the issues I had with The White Queen was its script which I found to be fairly expositional. To be fair to former Shameless writer Emma Frost, she did have a lot of plot to get through in episode one, but I still found a lot of the script to be characters explaining the story to the audience. In fact the script only gets going in the final third of the episode when we see our central female characters come face to face for the first time. I particularly enjoyed the frosty exchanges between Jacquetta and Cecily as they argued about the marriage of Elizabeth and Edward.


In terms of the acting, I found the elder members of the cast stole the show out from under their younger counterparts. This is particularly true of Janet McTeer who gave a scenery chewing performance as the manipulative and magical Jacquetta. I found her interplay with both Cecily and Warwick to be the highlights of the programme and I hope she’s featured prominently in future episodes. Similarly Robert Pugh, who played her husband Baron Rivers, was believable as a put-upon nobleman who was forced to switch sides so that his daughter would become more powerful. The other members of the cast worth noting were James Frain as the sly Warwick and Caroline Goodall as the frosty Cecily. However, as Edward and Elizabeth, I found Max Irons and Rebecca Ferguson to be the weaker members of the cast. Irons in particular wasn’t as dominating a presence as he needed to be in order to play the king and his biggest strength seemed to be the fact that he looked quite good topless. Indeed Irons and Ferguson were at their best when Edward and Elizabeth were frolicking, which happened with great frequency in this first episode. However, it seems that us Brits are missing out on some of the saucier scenes which will only be shown in the American edit.

Overall, The White Queen definitely showed promise in its opening instalment. The scenery was stunning and the elder members of the cast were all brilliant. Meanwhile, the main issues with the piece came from the weaker performances of Irons and Ferguson, and an over-abundance of expositional dialogue. Ultimately though I’m intrigued enough to tune in next week and find out what’s next for the new sexy royal family on the block.

What did you think to The White Queen? Will you be watching the next nine episodes? Leave Your Comments Below.

1 Comment

  1. Anne Leedham on June 17, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    I generally agree with these comments – it is the older members of the cast who are giving the best performances, but it all looks great. I especially remember Janet McTeer for her portrayal of a country girl with a hare lip in a TV adaptation of Mary Webb’s Precious Bane in the 1990s. Because of her unfortunate disfigurement, her fellow villagers believed she was a witch and tried to drown after she suffered a succession of family tragedies because they believed she had caused them! I’m pleased to say she was saved by the love of a good man.

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