History in the making

History in the making

By Michael Pickard
June 1, 2021


Anne Boleyn writer Eve Hedderwick Turner and historical advisor Dan Jones take DQ inside this three-part re-examination of Henry VIII’s second wife and discuss how they sought to put a fresh spin on a historical drama.

For almost 500 years, the memory of Anne Boleyn has lived on in infamy thanks to her position as the second wife of King Henry VIII – and the first to have been beheaded by the monarch. Now, a Channel 5 miniseries will explore the final months of Anne’s life from the queen’s own perspective as she struggles to secure a future for her daughter Elizabeth and challenge the patriarchy closing in around her.

While Anne Boleyn is often depicted as a cold-hearted, scheming seductress who lured Henry into marriage before sleeping with his best friend, the C5 drama presents her as a woman who dared to see herself as her husband’s equal and envisage her daughter on the throne.

Queen & Slim’s Jodie Turner-Smith takes the lead in a series pitched more as a psychological thriller than a traditional historical drama, with a supporting cast including Paapa Essiedu (I May Destroy You) as Anne’s brother and Tudor nobleman George Boleyn, Mark Stanley (White House Farm) as Henry VIII and Lola Petticrew (Dating Amber) as Anne’s love rival Jane Seymour, who would become Henry’s third wife.

Dan Jones

Written by newcomer Eve Hedderwick Turner and directed by Lynsey Miller (Deadwater Fell), the three-parter’s origins can be found in conversations between C5 controller Ben Frow and historian Dan Jones, who were discussing building on the network’s reputation for historical documentaries and its push into high-end drama.

“[C5] are big disruptors in the drama space and Ben said he’d love to do a drama about Anne Boleyn,” Jones tells DQ. “I said, ‘I can do that for you,’ and then I called some people who really could. The very first conversations I had with the channel were about how to tell a familiar story in a new way. The oldest trick in drama is to put the camera on one character’s shoulder and see the story unfold through their eyes. With Anne Boleyn, you put it on Anne’s shoulder, so everything is through her point of view.”

Producers Fable Pictures and Sony Pictures Television then boarded the project before Hedderwick Turner signed on to write the series, which opens by informing viewers that it is “inspired by truth… and lies.” An executive producer and historical advisor on the show, Jones believes the key to historical drama is to “keep it pretty simple,” as the boundary between fact and fiction can often become blurred.

“There’s a line between history and drama, and the imperative in history is to err towards factual accuracy at all times. But the imperative with drama is to take the history as the inspiration and then lean into a conversation between past and present,” he explains. “Historical dramas are most successful when everyone in the production knows when they’re not getting it right. To do that, you’ve got to know what is right. It’s absolutely fine to take historical licence in historical drama – that’s part of the point of the genre – and so long as you know what you’re getting right and what you’re getting wrong, you’re unlikely to run into trouble. I’ve seen it where writers just say, ‘I don’t care about history, I’ll just write a good story,’ and it never works.”

Hedderwick Turner’s scripts, he says, “really sing of the period” as a result of the extensive research she did before putting pen to paper, which then gave her the confidence to use that knowledge where it was appropriate and take creative risks where it wasn’t.

“The confidence that level of knowledge gives you is really all you need to make successful historical drama,” Jones adds.

Jodie Turner-Smith takes the lead in Channel 5’s Anne Boleyn

A fan of Philippa Gregory’s historical novels – which have inspired series such as The White Queen, The White Princess and The Spanish Princess – Hedderwick Turner held a fascination with Anne Boleyn and was immediately drawn to the idea of a series in which she would be the protagonist.

“It also gives me as a writer the opportunity to tell a subjective, psychologically driven narrative, which was something I was very excited by,” she says. “When you have someone who’s surrounded by myth and has so much baggage, it’s really fun to be able to sift through that and take a new stance on it, and it felt particularly important in this day and age to do a proper feminist retelling of the story.”

Emotionally charged descriptions of Anne as a witch, seductress, adulteress and traitor don’t paint the most flattering picture of the former queen of England, and Hedderwick Turner ’s aim was to get under the skin of this complex woman and all her ambitions and desires.

“We wanted to look at some slightly less explored elements of her personality, like her relationship with [daughter] Elizabeth, her maternal instincts and her desire to create some sort of legacy through her bloodline,” Hedderwick Turner continues. “Quite often, she was portrayed as a power-hungry person and it seemed she just wanted power for power’s sake, whereas I felt she did seem to have some really genuine motivations and was quite integral to a lot of political discussions, being one of the most influential people at court.”

Eve Hedderwick Turner

Turning Anne’s story into a psychological thriller “felt like a really obvious choice,” the writer says, particularly after taking the decision to focus on the final five months of the queen’s life.

“Her fall from being at the top of her game to being murdered by her husband was so fast, it felt like it really naturally lent itself to that genre,” Hedderwick Turner notes. “Once you remember that no one else surrounding her actually knew how her story was going to end, you realise there’s drama at every single turn. And having made the decision to keep the camera on her and stay out of the rooms where other plots and decisions were happening, you also get this thriller element coming through because she’s having to catch up so much. She’s a very obviously intelligent woman but a lot of these really big conversations were happening out of her reach, so she was having to piece things together like a very frightening jigsaw puzzle. Those things really helped keep that edge of the seat thing going as well.”

While courtiers in 1536 might not have known Anne’s fate, that’s one thing the majority of viewers will know before they tune in to the series, which begins on C5 tonight. Even if they don’t, the programme foreshadows as much from the beginning, stating that the most powerful woman in England has only five months to live.

“When you’re trying to retell historical stories, it is often very hard to unbind yourself mentally from the end of the story,” Jones says. “With this particular story, it’s there in that rhyme about Henry’s six wives: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. Almost the first definition you get of her is her death, and I always felt the trick to telling that story in a fresh way is to just pretend you don’t know the end of the story. At that point, you really start to understand people’s motivations in a different way. That, combined with the fixed point of view through Anne’s eyes, allows you to unpack the story, and things look very different.”

“We really wanted to open the series with this little taster of what was to come, so to see this fragment of her on trial and then to snap back five months to when she’s hosting this huge party and she’s the centre of everything, she looks glorious and she feels incredible,” Hedderwick Turner adds. “To have those two scenes put right together felt like a great way to open the series and tell people, ‘Just sit and wait because there’s big stuff coming.’”

Mark Stanley plays King Henry VIII

Having seen Turner-Smith in 2019 feature Queen & Slim, Hedderwick Turner thought she would be the perfect Anne. The actor also became integral to creative discussions during pre-production and spoke with Turner about elements of her character, as well as contributing to decisions on Anne’s costumes and make-up.

“She has this deep dignity about her. She’s very regal and she’s also fiercely intelligent,” Hedderwick Turner says of Turner-Smith. “She’s not afraid to use her voice to speak about things that are important to her, even if they are difficult to talk about. She’d also just had a baby so that was really front and centre in her life and felt like a great link to what we want to do in exploring Anne’s more maternal side. The two spirits of our queen and our actress seemed to align really brilliantly.”

Turner-Smith’s performance, the costumes, Miller’s direction and the production’s design – a blend of classical elements and bright colours – all contribute to making Anne Boleyn feel fresh and contemporary. There were even discussions about how ‘Tudor’ to make the dialogue.

“It has an elevated style to it. We were calling it ‘easy-on-the-ear Tudor’ so that audiences could listen to it and not feel completely distant from the speech and therefore the characters,” Hedderwick Turner says.

“It’s balancing act, because there’s no point doing a historical drama and then throwing out all of the history,” says Jones. “You’ve got to respect your audience and remember they’re probably going to come to a show about Anne Boleyn because they’re interested in Anne Boleyn. But for me, one of the exciting things about the way this show has come together, with Eve’s writing, Lindsay’s directing and Jodie’s fantastic portrayal of Anne, is the sense we’re talking a lot in culture in general [at the moment] about what history we want to tell. Quite often in that debate, it can seem like there’s an imperative to just chuck everything out the window, get rid of all the old canonical history. But you don’t have to do that.

Paapa Essiedu (Gangs of London) is Anne’s brother and Tudor nobleman George Boleyn

“These traditional stories have been told generation after generation for good reason, because they’re great stories. And there are ways to bring in these modern themes that will feel attractive, interesting, challenging and relevant to a modern audience and a young audience. What I hope this production shows is that bringing history up to date doesn’t have to mean chucking it out and writing a whole bunch of new stories. It can be writing these traditional stories in inventive, fresh, cool new ways.”

Hedderwick Turner hopes the drama will resonate across a wide audience, particularly considering the fact that the issues and struggles with which Anne was dealing in the 16th century are ones women still face today.

“For a woman or anyone who has typically been sidelined from power and influence to be taken seriously and to be given space and a platform, it will feel really resonant,” says the writer, adding that the show also tackles “issues about the commodification of the female body and all the pressures on it to perform in different ways. There’s tonnes of stuff in there I hope will speak to people differently.”

Jones describes historical drama as a conversation between the past and present, and also highlights the ongoing power struggles between men and women, particularly in the entertainment industry as a result of people speaking out about their experiences of sexual abuse or harassment.

Turner-Smith with director Lynsey Miller on set

“Fundamental questions about the relationships between men and women are being re-examined, so you lean into the points in the story that animate you in light of where you are at present,” he says. “All of those things are pretty simple and straightforward. But if you’re disciplined about them and if you’re a talented storyteller, which Eve obviously is, then you come up with a vision of the world that will automatically feel fresh.”

Meanwhile, Jones teases future projects currently in development that will further seek to readdress maligned or misunderstood historical figures. “There’s a lot more. You could continue on through the Tudor period alone and produce a year’s worth of drama,” he says.

“But what this project has shown is there’s a great appetite among broadcasters to take risks with historical drama. The lazy criticism is, ‘Oh, you just make the same things over and over and over again.’ Well, this is a radically different portrayal of Anne Boleyn. You look at something like Bridgerton taking huge steps with what would have sounded on paper like another 19th century drama. There’s an appetite among broadcasters for history, but there’s an imperative to do it in fresh ways.

“For creative people who are interested in history, it’s a golden time to be to be working – so hopefully there’s more to come.”

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