“The White Queen” Miniseries: Background

WARNING: This post contains explanations and spoilers.

From the title of my blog, you may have an idea of my view of the Starz series “The White Queen.”  Because it deals with the period of time that I study, and portrays some of my favorite people in this period, I very much wanted to love “WQ.” But in execution it was not all that I wanted it to be. And since it has aired in the US, more internet “scholars” have come out in support of the show as “a perfect work of history.” This is just not the case.

Here in the US, the “WQ” miniseries is hosted by Starz, and it is based on the Cousins War books by Philippa Gregory. There has been a bit of press about this program, because it was a collaboration with the BBC, but Starz wanted more nudity and sex so they shot two versions of the scenes, one for each network. Starz was looking for something to replace the Michael Hirst production “Camelot,” which had been cancelled, and for something to compete with HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” This was a mighty tall order to begin with, as “GoT” has become such an influential and well-loved show.

“GoT” is a very violent, very masculine production, and “White Queen” was made to be the “women’s” program. This was done under the assumption that a) “GoT” does not attract female viewers, and b) women want to see more sex and less violence. These assumptions are false, and I know just as many women who are all about “GoT,” including myself, who don’t mind the violence or even enjoy it. “WQ” may have been doomed from the start to not live up these high expectations.

“WQ” is based on three of Gregory’s books- The White Queen, The Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter– which are fictional accounts of the lives of three women in positions of power during the Wars of the Roses. The colors- red and white- are a reference to the rose badges that the retainers of both opposing sides, Lancaster and York, wore, though this reference is not contemporary. Elizabeth Woodville, the “White Queen,” was the wife and Queen of King Edward IV. Margaret Beaufort, the “Red Queen,” was the mother of King Henry VII. And Anne Neville was the daughter of Richard Neville, the “Kingmaker” as he was called a hundred years after his death, and she was firstly the wife of Edward, son of Henry VI and Prince of Wales, and then became Richard III’s wife and Queen. Gregory has attempted to add a feminist spin to what we know of these women,  to make them all into heroines who stand up to the men that run the country, pushing their own interests forward and gaining support for themselves and their causes. The books have been very popular, which is why they were turned into the miniseries.

The show seems to be gaining more popularity in the US than it did in the UK. In addition to the “saucier” aspects of it (the nudity), Starz took out a large amount of marketing for the show. There were ads on other TV stations, in magazines, and online both from static ads on search engines to videos on YouTube. This domination of advertising gathered an audience and the first episode had a large viewership. It may have also been easier to get interest in the fiction in the US because most Americans tend to have a large black hole when it comes to anything English. We do not focus on English history in our public schools, and it is not even a common course at the university level. As I’ve already said, I’ve been discouraged from studying this period by college professors. Finding an American with any grasp of English history is rare. Some might have an idea of who Henry VIII or Elizabeth I were, may have seen “The Tudors” on Showtime or “Elizabeth” when it came out in 1998, but beyond the 6 wives and the Virgin Queen, it is hard to find an American with any other knowledge.

This makes us a perfect audience for this miniseries. While the BBC’s audience was made up of viewers who were educated in the history of the Wars of the Roses and could then spot problems immediately and who reacted to them by turning off the show, it’s harder for Americans to know when it is factual and when it’s author opinion. As such, “WQ” continues to do well here, and more Americans have stuck with it. There may even be some who will be disappointed when the miniseries is over. The production company should have waited to make the choice not to create a follow-up series to it, based on Gregory’s White Princess, until after the Starz run.

The ignorance of the American audience is more of a challenge for me, and my like-minded Wars of the Roses obsessed friends. It is easier to find Americans who are willing to “wax poetically” about how much they’ve learned from this series, and who are not keen to be educated on the reality. Americans also view something like this series as “educational” instead of entertainment (I have wondered if this could be because of the British accents?). It seems to be in the US where Gregory is most lauded as a “historian” instead of a novelist. Many Americans are first exposed to English history in the form of historical fiction, but the larger percentage never makes it to reading the non-fiction. When Gregory’s previous novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, became a feature-length movie there was a surge in interest about Anne Boleyn, but the majority failed to get very far away from the fiction.

What compounds this is Gregory’s insistence that “this is what really happened,” or “this is the real story behind this period.” In interviews and documentary programs she continues this stance. Sometimes her explanations for why she thinks her fictional versions are the reality get very wild. Her explanation of how she believes that Anne Boleyn had sex with her own brother in a moment of desperation to conceive a child, as they do in The Other Boleyn Girl, is very weak. “Well, they weren’t raised together and met as strangers when they were adults-“ she says in the BBC program “The Last Days of Anne Boleyn.” She acts as if that was an uncommon situation for siblings to not be raised together in the 16th Century. It wasn’t. And no matter how siblings are raised they still do not commit incest.

Her answer is similar for why she believes that Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the “Princes in the Tower” was switched out for a common boy by his mother, Elizabeth Woodville, so that he could be saved from the same murder that his brother, Edward V received, in the novel The White Queen (in the US we have not gone that far yet in the miniseries). How was Elizabeth able to switch the boys? Because Richard III, just being their uncle, clearly wouldn’t know them well enough, and couldn’t tell that the boys were switched. Gregory insists that, since Richard didn’t see the boy often, he wouldn’t know what he looked like or acted like, making it possible to leave a complete stranger in his care with him being none the wiser. As the aunt of 5 nieces and 3 nephews, I find this logic insulting. My brother’s children live in Texas, and I see them about once a year. But if anyone switched one of them out with another child, I’d know right away. Even if they were a perfect doppelganger these faux-children would still not have the same mannerisms or speech. Her insistence that this was not just possible but actually what happened bothers me more than almost everything else she had done, combined together. I will go further into the problems with the books either when I cover those parts of the miniseries or when I can focus on these books themselves.

In “The Real White Queen,” a program created by the BBC and aired in conjunction with “WQ,” Gregory takes a firm stand on many of the other questionable parts of the show and her books. She walks us through the sets, and is interspersed with a few other writers and one historian, who are parroting what she says or being edited to look as though they are. This program should have been a sounding board, where she explains why she takes this position or that, maybe explains the inspiration for why she wrote it this way. But it isn’t. Instead, it is used as an attempt to buttress the show’s insistence of being completely factual. It is one of the worst disservices done to the viewing audience.

I have encountered a few of Gregory’s fans in online forums, who say that none of this is true. They say that Gregory has never insisted that any of her work is factual, that she has said that this or that is completely made up. Oddly, they have never watched the interviews or the various productions she has taken part in. Once they watch the above referenced programs they change their tune, taking the side of her critics.

I am not sure how much of this insistence that fiction is fact is Gregory herself, and how much of it is outside forces compelling her to make such statements. I do not know if, for example, her publisher tells her that it would sell more books to claim that she only “fills in the conversations.” I do not know if the production company had mandated that she appear in other BBC programs and never sway from her statements that she has created a completely factual account of what happened, for the purpose of gaining an audience. If that is the case, then I would apologize to her for being so critical, and hope that she gains the freedom to stand up and say that she’s a good storyteller and not to take her own work so seriously. But until that clarification comes, I have to fight to set the records straight. It does neither her nor her fans any justice to bury our heads in the proverbial sand and pretend that it is alright to claim that her fiction is fact.

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