In 2020, we appeared to formally wave ta-ta to fact-based period dramas, instead welcoming in raucous shag fests in Georgian dresses, with modern dialogue that wouldn’t look out of place on a TikTok. Luckily Channel 5 got the memo, and are here with the latest historically inaccurate hoot.
And who better to give a modern revamp than those oh-so-salacious Tudors? With Henry VIII, his many wives and his penchant for chopping off heads, this is fertile ground for a fiery retelling, with sex, scandal and betrayal abound. Of course, we’ve kind of already had that version in The Tudors, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers turning old Henners into a bit of a sex symbol, helped along nicely by the producers who chucked a nude scene in wherever they could. But for once, this story about one of Britain’s most infamous monarchs, isn’t actually about him – it’s about his wife, Anne. That’s the second one from the rhyme, “divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived.” So we probably don’t need to give you a spoiler alert when telling you she’s going to end up six feet under.
But it’s still good fun getting there. Jodie Turner-Smith is Anne, here a bold an assertive figure, with an ability to make men at court uncomfortable with just one look. We join her in early 1536, meaning she has been queen for over two years, has borne the king a girl, miscarried twice and is now pregnant again. It also means she’s got just five months until her hubby’s rage turns murderous. Oh, to be rich and powerful… Anyway, there’s a lot to go on before that. Anne’s got to deal with power hungry Cromwell, and keep that baby cooking to full term. Plus, that pesky Jane Seymour is lurking around the corner ready to snatch her crown. Better keep her out the way by giving her a quick smooch in the palace gardens.
We don’t think that really happened either, but that’s not the point of this show which is more Bridgerton than Wolf Hall. And like that Netflix hit, there’s a lot of extended metaphors and swanning about in pretty dresses. Another common trait between the two series, is that this too caused a stir by casting a black actress to play the lead, having lots of people’s knickers in a twist about historical accuracy. But do we really need it for a story that is so universally known? Turner-Smith is powerful as the bold Boleyn, and if anything, her race only emphasises the cruel way her and her – potentially incestuous – brother George (Paapa Essiedu) were treated at court.
For people who like their history to come factually sound, this won’t be for you. However for those who are up for a three-part series that is a fun, soapy new spin on Anne Boleyn’s story, then this is a right royal romp. With big, bold characters, power struggles and glamorous frocks, this is an entertaining series that can be devoured in one evening. Off with your head!
As you’ve probably already guessed, the critics are slightly divided over this one. Suzi Feay of the Financial Times, however, thoroughly enjoyed it. She says: “Historical dramas usually over-egg the pudding; this crisp retelling acts as a palate-cleanser.” The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan didn’t mind it either, praising Turner-Smith’s portrayal of Anne, “every inch the embattled queen, unshakeably regal even as she flashes fire and fury in the wake of Henry’s latest betrayal.” In The Independent, Adam White agrees her casting was a “good fit” for “the show’s heightened soapiness,” but does question whether “the series as a whole truly adds anything new to its heroine’s legacy.”
The Telegraph’s Anita Singh clearly doesn’t think so – she gave Anne Boleyn just two stars, saying “it feels like a production that could have been made in the 1960s,” adding “Anne’s story was dramatic even by Tudor standards – but the actors may as well be reading out the small print on their Hoover guarantee for all the excitement it delivers.”
First shown June 2021.