TV Review: The White Queen

I'm going to shock you again, dear readers: two blogs on something relatively current in one week! And now that you've picked yourselves up off the floor...

I am a sucker for a good costume drama. When I was a kid I would be completely glued to those BBC adaptations of various children's books that were always on at Sunday teatimes in the depths of winter, and as I've got older I've amassed a steady collection of DVDs of every possible version of classic novels brought to the small screen. (For the record, if I had to pick one, the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice wins hands down.) So when I spotted the BBC's production of The White Queen, based on Philippa Gregory's series The Cousins' War, I knew my Sunday nights were block-booked for at least six weeks.

The series' USP is that it focuses on the women involved in the War of the Roses - the titular White Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, is the daughter of a Lancastrian lord and Jacquetta, descendant of the Dukes of Burgundy and a practitioner of magic. Whilst out walking she meets the young York king Edward IV, who falls head over heels in lust with her and eventually ends up marrying her, to the consternation of his right-hand man, the Earl of Warwick. On the flip side of the coin is Margaret Beaufort, a devout widow remarried to an out-of-the-way lord and separated from her young son Henry, the Lancastrian heir. And then there's Warwick's daughter Anne Neville, who's drawn to Edward's youngest brother Richard. Still keeping up?

I have to say the Beeb have done a fantastic job of mixing three of Gregory's novels to create the series, keeping the stories running parallel and fitting together; although the series is called The White Queen, it's actually a mixture of three books from her Cousins' War series and seems to have been blended brilliantly well. I admit I've seen very little of Game of Thrones but there isn't that mixing of the books as there is here, particularly in terms of bringing characters to the fore. This does however mean it plays less like an ensemble piece, as GoT does, and more like snippets from each character's lives overlapping with one another. But equally it doesn't feel disjointed - quite the opposite, actually, with the three stories flowing together as the plots of each book overlap. There also seems to be much more emphasis on certain characters being brought to the fore as the series goes on - episode three, for example, is dominated by the Neville sisters, as well as Margaret coming to the fore, where Elizabeth and her mother Jacquetta take a step back from their leading roles in the earlier episodes, giving each family their moment in the sun as well as their fall (and, in the case of the Lancastrians, their rise - surely that doesn't count as a spoiler?).

I've read a couple of Philippa Gregory's books before, including The White Queen, and actually quite liked them. I can hear the proper historians sniggering as I type that but I think if you take them with a pinch of salt they're actually not bad reads, especially if you want something a bit escapist. The TV show, on the other hand, seems to have succumbed to that thing that all historical dramas feel like they've had to do in the wake of Game of Thrones - that is, up the violence and the gratuituous nudity. OK, it's been a while since I read the book but I definitely don't remember it being that graphic. That said though I really do like the political intrigue that's going on and the shifting family allegiances running as an undercurrent to everything, which is one of the things that has been kept from the books and in turn from the actual history. I didn't know an enormous amount about the Plantagenets and the background to the War of the Roses prior to watching the series, although it's definitely sparked my interest in them. So if that's what you like in a TV drama then this is definitely worth a look, and even if it's not it's still a pretty good bet for switching your brain off for an hour before the madness of a working week starts again.

If you're not watching it already, the first three episodes of The White Queen are currently on BBC iPlayer, with new episodes on BBC Two every Sunday night at 9 PM.

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