Emma Frost, co-showrunner of Starz drama The Spanish Princess, discusses finding the balance between historical truth and dramatic storytelling in a key scene from the series, which is produced by New Pictures and Playground and distributed by Lionsgate.
The Spanish Princess is the third instalment in the English historical series I’ve been doing for Starz, following The White Queen and The White Princess. It’s loosely based on two Philippa Gregory books, The Constant Princess and The King’s Curse, and is about Catherine of Aragon, who arrives from Spain to marry Prince Arthur.
There’s a scene in the third episode that we probably discussed more than any other in the whole show. It deals with the death and funeral of Arthur. As dramatists and producers, we know that anyone with a passing interest in history knows Arthur dies. So how do we write it? How do we produce it? How do we bring something fresh to it?
In terms of the filming, the scene is hugely ambitious in scale. We filmed it in Wells Cathedral in south-west England. Our wonderful director, Daina Reid, was very ambitious and had so many great ideas for this scene, but we had one day to film this huge funeral procession. It was a real military operation. The practical production challenges were immense.
There is a lot of historical record of Arthur’s funeral. When you have historical facts for any story, it presents unique challenges. You need historical advisors, but it’s one of the peculiarities of this show that we endlessly have to fight back against the truth, because our show is so much about power play and politics.
We can’t have a scene where characters are saying treasonous things within earshot of guards or clergymen who would be loyal to the king and would go off and immediately tell him. So one of the things we had to really police is well-meaning historical advisors who tell you to make all these people stand in one place because that’s where they were on the day, while Matthew [Graham, co-showrunner] and I endlessly have to go, ‘No, all those people out.’ It undermines the scene and the storytelling because this is a scene that cannot have eavesdroppers.
Spectacle isn’t story. It’s really easy to fall into a trap where you stop telling the story, forget about characters and suddenly just design a wedding or a funeral and spend a ton of money on it. There’s an endless challenge for us about how to combine spectacle with narrative and make sure every unfolding scene or sequence is driving deeply into character and story so it’s really earning it’s place either emotionally or narratively, and it isn’t the equivalent of a song and dance number where the story stops.
One of the things we discovered was that Sir Richard Pole, a nobleman who brought up Arthur for most of his childhood in Wales, rode a huge horse through the church, snapping Arthur’s staff across his knee and laying it on the coffin. When you read that, you think it’s amazing. But then we discovered Catherine rode to the cathedral on a donkey. This was about her own sense of humility. She wanted to be a woman of the people; she wanted to be on their level.
In the first version of that sequence, we had Catherine on a donkey and then the horse in the cathedral. But the horse is simply spectacle, whereas Catherine riding the donkey is all about character and story. So the decision was made to lose the horse. It would have been great but we all felt it was gilding the lily and would have been one of those things where historical truth gets in the way.
We also wanted to find the emotional centre of the scene. Everybody is grieving but we tell the story through the female characters, so the three women for whom this is most significant emotionally are Catherine, whose husband has just died and whose fate has been thrown into uncertainty; Lizzie, Arthur’s mother; and Margaret Beaufort, who is the political player and is now wondering what is to be done with Catherine – as Arthur’s death means Lizzie’s second son is now in line to sit on the throne as Henry VIII.
Our story is about Catherine and her entourage coming in and bringing their own culture with them. There’s a practice called keening – crying out to express grief – that cuts through many different faiths and cultures, and it’s so un-English and beautiful. So we focus the scene on the elements that felt pertinent to our characters so they weren’t just historical realities recreated.
Showrunners Emma Frost and Matthew Graham explore the early life of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, in historical drama The Spanish Princess. They reveal how the future queen caused a stir in Tudor England and the drama’s parallels with Breaking Bad.
Hot on the heels of The White Queen and The White Princess, US premium cable network Starz is continuing its dynastic saga of Tudor England with eight-part drama The Spanish Princess.
Like both of its predecessors, this new series recalls history from the perspective of its female characters and is based on historical novels by author Philippa Gregory, this time The Constant Princess and The King’s Curse. But while the story ostensibly focuses on Catherine of Aragon’s arrival from Spain with dreams of becoming queen – an ambition she achieved by marrying the future Henry VIII – it stands apart from previous instalments through its perspective of an outsider causing a stir in the Royal Court, themes of immigration and its focus on people of colour living in 16th century London.
Under the leadership of co-showrunners Emma Frost and Matthew Graham, the series will reveal how Catherine left a Spain ruled by her fearsome mother, Isabella of Castile, and came to England, where she experienced a huge culture shock in a land that was comparatively old fashioned and male dominated.
“She really causes gigantic ripples in this old-fashioned, rather fusty male Tudor world,” Frost explains. “As history goes on to tell us, her daughter Mary [with Henry VIII] becomes the first queen in her own right, Mary I.”
But there’s another reason that Frost and Graham believe The Spanish Princess promises to be the most exciting chapter yet. Beginning their research during production of The White Princess, they were keen to understand the place of people of colour in 16th century London. Historical advisers suggested diverse characters would have been an anachronism for the period, which Frost admits “really pissed me off,” as she already knew that wasn’t true.
“What we discovered without breaking too much of a sweat is that Catherine of Aragon came to England with an incredibly diverse entourage of people, notably including an African Iberian lady-in-waiting called Catalina de Cardones, who we call Lina in the show,” reveals Frost, who was also the showrunner of The White Queen and The White Princess.
“This woman exists as a footnote in history but no one has ever bothered to dramatise her or acknowledge she was there. What we know is Lina married another African in London, Oviedo, and it was very unusual in this period for people of colour to marry each other. So this is a really extraordinary story of these two African people in early Tudor England marrying each other and being very much part of the world of the court. So there is a whole new massive piece of this story that is reappropriating history for people of colour as well as for women by telling this story of these two people who really did exist.”
Graham says The Spanish Princess also looks at issues of class and social mobility in a way the previous versions weren’t able to. “The White Queen and The White Princess were both very much about the Yorks and Lancasters and all of it was at that level. Now we can tell stories that take place in the taverns, the streets and the way their love story unfolds,” he says. “The other thing you get a chance to do is tell what could not be a more pertinent story about immigration. There was cultural wariness of people who came from a different country. Frankly, though, in Tudor London you were wary of people who came from Wales. It wasn’t the colour of the skin that was the issue, so that’s quite nice – here we are with two black people in the middle of Tudor England and we don’t tell a story about racism.”
Like The White Queen and The White Princess, every scene in The Spanish Princess is from one of the leading female characters’ points of view, with Catherine and Lina joined as the main protagonists by another Iberian lady-in-waiting, Rosa, and Maggie Pole, who also featured in The White Princess. Meanwhile, Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, is still very much a key player and antagonist-in-chief, Frost says. “There are various very strong conflicting female points of view that interweave or fall in behind Catherine. She’s the main character but we always have these other incredible strong women in the show.”
Frost argues Catherine is much maligned by history, overshadowed by Henry VIII’s later wives, particularly those who lost their heads in the process. “She’s characterised as this unwanted old bag, but it’s a phenomenal story that’s very pertinent to the 21st century,” she adds.
Catherine’s arrival from Spain is used to great visual effect in the series, contrasting the bright sunshine and rich colours of her homeland against the dark, gloominess of England – a place of shadows and people whispering in corridors.
“She’s a breath of fresh air but she’s also not to be trusted. She brings her own culture,” Graham says of Catherine. Frost notes that the character’s arrival in the country allows the show to observe Tudor England from an outsider’s perspective, something not possible in the previous iterations.
“That’s a really exciting point of view shift because now the Tudor world is the ‘other’ to the world of our heroine,” she says. “That allows for all sorts of other conflicts. There’s also an incredibly exciting theme running through the show about faith, because the Inquisition is beginning in Spain under Isabella, Catherine’s mother, and several of her entourage are Muslim, so they have to deal with their feelings about what’s happening in Spain and what Catherine’s real allegiances are. There is a world where the Catholic faith is no longer the only gig in town for a lot of characters who have always peopled the show. So we’re able to explore lots of thorny issues around conflicting ideas about faith, God, forgiveness and redemption.”
Leading the drama as Catherine is Charlotte Hope (pictured top), who was cast following an international search across Europe and North America. Frost and Graham were looking for someone who could embody the strength and vulnerability of the princess. That Hope (Game of Thrones) looks eerily like Catherine was a bonus.
“Charlotte just looks like her,” says Frost. “She has this strength, this fragility, and she’s just grown into the role. It was very hard casting a lead because there are so many factors to consider, but she is the most talented, hard-working, wonderful actress. We just love her.”
Ruairi O’Connor plays Henry, with Stephanie Levi-John as Lina de Cardonnes, Aaron Cobham as Oviedo, Nadia Parkes as Rosa, Harriet Walter as Margaret Beaufort and Laura Carmichael (Downton Abbey) as Maggie Pole.
Graham was watching from the sidelines while his real-life partner Frost ran The White Princess, living and breathing Tudor England through her work. So when she suggested they do the next one together, he jumped at the opportunity to work alongside her and share the endless responsibilities of a showrunner – a role they had both previously performed separately. They say every TV show they both work on in future, they will do together.
Frost also welcomed the introduction of a male viewpoint behind the scenes. “Even though the show is told from the point of view of women, the male characters really matter, and trying to write a young Henry VIII – a complex, mercurial, intelligent, likeable, flawed and dangerous man – it’s been fantastic to have Matthew’s voice coming into that as well.
“Every single TV show we are working on now we do together, so we’re showrunning everything we do in TV. We break the stories together, we write the pilot together and then, moving forward, we write episodes separately and give each other notes. Then Matthew’s brilliant at all the bits in production that I’m hopeless at.”
Behind the camera, Birgitte Stærmose (Norskov) directs the first two episodes and Maya Zamodia is the DOP. Graham also got to try his hand at directing, picking up some battle sequences and palace-set scenes in Spain. Production designer Will Hughes-Jones (The Alienist) and costume designer Phoebe de Gaye (Killing Eve) return from The White Princess. Composer Samuel Sim is adding the music to the production, which Graham says won’t feel like “your grandmother’s period drama.”
“It’s got to have a buoyancy and momentum to it that feels fresh and cinematic and youthful,” he adds. “That’s one of the big things in production we’ve gone for.”
Frost picks up: “It’s a tremendously ambitious show. For the budget, what we’ve achieved is extraordinary. We’ve all had to be really inventive about how we cut our cloth and how we make the show.”
Distributed internationally by Lionsgate, the series is produced by New Pictures and Playground and is due to debut early next year. Frost and Graham, however, are already working on a second season of The Spanish Princess, which will continue the story of Catherine of Aragon – one Frost likens to Walter White’s journey from idealism into darkness in Breaking Bad.
“This doesn’t have the same darkness but it does arguably have more tragedy. Ultimately, it’s the story about the lie,” she adds, referring to Catherine’s claim that her marriage to Prince Arthur was not consummated before his death, thus leaving her free to wed Henry and become queen.
“Our whole exploration really is an exploration of that decision she makes and whether she’s lying or telling the truth and the consequences of those actions. It’s a really strong female story of a woman trying to define her place in the world. It’s very familiar [to modern audiences] in that regard.”
Showrunner Emma Frost takes DQ into the court of The White Princess, a historical drama she describes as a period version of The West Wing.
As far as sequels go, The White Princess is slightly unusual. A follow-up to 2013’s The White Queen, the series again finds its inspiration in Philippa Gregory’s series of novels that comprise The Cousins’ War, set against the backdrop of the War of the Roses in 15th century England.
There are also some of the same characters – but that’s largely where the similarities end. A brand new cast appears on screen, while the BBC dropped out of the US/UK partnership behind The White Queen, leaving US premium cable network Starz to go it alone. There’s also a new production designer and costume designer, giving the series an altogether different style and look.
That proved to be a breath of fresh air for Emma Frost, a British writer who has found her natural calling within the US showrunner system that gives writers the responsibility of producing their own work.
“Doing it under the American system meant I was the showrunner and had the creative control that comes with that,” Frost explains. “I was very proud of The White Queen but there were certain things we felt we could do better so we’ve worked very hard to have a coherent creative vision for The White Princess. It looks quite different, it’s more sophisticated. It has a great deal more psychological depth within the characters than The White Queen, which was much more about the history and the sequence of events. With this one, we’ve gone deeper into character, psychology and motivation. In some ways, it’s like a period version of The West Wing – it’s very political.”
The story sees war-ravaged England ostensibly united by the marriage of Princess Elizabeth of York (Lizzie) and King Henry VII, but their personal and political rift threatens to tear the kingdom apart once again. When rumours circulate that Lizzie’s long-lost brother Prince Richard is alive and planning to take the throne, she is forced into an impossible choice between her new husband and the boy who could be the rightful King.
Produced by Company Pictures and Playground, The White Princess is executive produced by Frost alongside director Jamie Payne and Colin Callender, Scott Huff and Michele Buck. Starz distributes the series worldwide.
Frost wrote a detailed series bible and episode outline, laying out her vision for the show. She subsequently penned four episodes and co-wrote a further two, ensuring her vision and voice remained in place across the eight-episode run.
But the development of The White Princess was complicated somewhat by the show’s origins, being based on a book that is itself based on historical events.
“The book is always the guide,” Frost explains. “I go back to history as well and there are certain historical facts Philippa didn’t use that I chose to. For example, the first thing Henry does when he comes to the throne is he backdates his reign [to make him king before his victory over Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth].
“That was considered an absolutely shocking outrage and blasphemy because it was believed that God was on the battlefield and God determined there and then who he would side with and who would be his next anointed king. So to suggest you thought you were the king before God decided was a real insult to God.
“To me, that was an incredibly explosive and dramatically exciting thing that really happened in history so I put that in the show, whereas it’s not in the novel. There aren’t many things I’ve actually invented. The only things I did invent came out of a necessity to follow a character or narrative arc that we set running in the first season. There are a couple of moments but, for the most part, everything is in history or from
Frost describes history as “a litany of things men did,” which means there is subsequently little focus on women. The White Princess, she says, reappropriates history from a female point of view, with a cast of powerful women all fighting for their own survival.
“What’s interesting for me is it’s an entirely female-driven show that also has incredibly high stakes,” the showrunner says. “If you create a contemporary show that’s entirely female-driven, it can be tough to find those high stakes, but this is a narrative about birth, death, war, betrayal and murder.
“The stakes could not be higher so it’s a fantastic opportunity to write these vivid, bold characters who are fighting for something they believe in and they need. It’s a joy, I have to say. We got to the final episode and myself and one of the other writers said, ‘Shall we just keep going? Shall we write some more?’”
Leading the charge on screen is Jodie Comer, who stars as Lizzie opposite Jacob Collins-Levy as Henry. She is joined by Michelle Fairley (Lady Margaret Beaufort), and Essie Davis (Dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville), while Suki Waterhouse appears as Cecily of York.
Comer caught Frost’s attention with star turns in BBC dramas Doctor Foster and Thirteen. And after seeing her during the first day of auditions, Frost quickly told the actor not to take up any other jobs.
“It’s been a really incredible show for me because every cast member is perfect, they are so good together and they inhabit the same world as well,” Frost says. “Sometimes you cherry pick the individuals that you want and when you get them together, they seem to inhabit different realities in terms of the tone of their performance and the way they resonate on screen. We’ve been really lucky with The White Princess in that everybody feels like they’re of the same world and the same tone and they work really well together.”
Filming locations were largely picked close to the production’s base at Bottle Yard Studios in Bristol, taking in sites across south west England such as Gloucester and Wells cathedrals – but also as far away as Arundel Castle on the south coast.
Frost admits each stage of production is “a mountain to climb,” from balancing the scripts between the source novel and history to keeping the drama relevant for modern audiences.
“It’s an incredible juggling act,” she notes. “I was very keen to find out if people of colour existed at this time because you never see any non-white faces in any of the movies or TV shows that have been made so far of this period. I drove my script editing team completely insane, researching any books they could find that might give us an insight into what the reality was.
“We found these two incredible books and learned unexpectedly there were actually quite a lot of people of colour, particularly in the cities – London, Plymouth, Bristol, all of the big port cities – so that was a really exciting discovery when we realised we could actually bring in a much more diverse cast.”
The White Princess, which debuted on Starz earlier this month, completes the story that began in The White Queen. A decision is yet to be made on a third instalment.
But why do historical and period dramas continue to fascinate the world over? “It’s a very glamorous, inaccessible world people can peer into through drama,” adds Frost, who is now working on feature film Zelda with Ron Howard and Jennifer Lawrence. “Royals were the celebrities of their day. Henry and Lizzie are the equivalent of Posh and Becks, aren’t they? They are these glamorous, unattainable, powerful people. It’s glamour and escapism for the audience, but these stories also have incredible stakes.”