It’s been said that television is getting weirder, but even by those standards, Channel 5 has always been pretty f**king odd. Launched in 1997 (with the Spice Girls on hand), it became the U.K.’s fifth terrestrial channel and the first in almost 15 years. In 2011, publishing mogul and former pornographer Richard Desmond bought the channel in a movie that made many in the media concerned. He increased the programming budget, which included relaunching Big Brother, and went hard on the kind of programming that could best be described as tawdry. Even though he sold Channel 5 in 2014, the stench of Desmond remained, with illustrious shows like Can’t Pay? We’ll Take it Away!, Bargain Brits on Benefits, and Celebrities: What Happened to Your Face? That last show was eventually pulled from their schedule after one of the celebrities featured in it, TV presenter and reality star Charlotte Crosby, called them out on social media.
The other thing Channel 5 is known for is royal-related programming. Do you want a quickly made documentary special on the war between the Sussexes and Cambridges that was clearly commissioned, shot, and edited in the space of two weeks? They’ve got you covered. Do you feel like there aren’t enough hours of the day dedicated to programming on Fergie, Duchess of York? So does Channel 5. Their great love, however, is Anne Boleyn. It’s not exactly tough to find programming related to the infamous and highly divisive second wife of Henry VIII. Channel 5’s own commissioning editor once admitted that he was so fascinated by Boleyn that he would happily greenlight any show related to her. But it’s been a while since they did so and people actually paid attention. Step forward Anne Boleyn, a three-part series that has attracted much buzz for two reasons: One, it’s an original drama, which Channel 5 doesn’t tend to make a lot of, and two, the title role is being played by Jodie Turner-Smith.
I won’t bore you with talk of the usual racist bullsh*t that Turner-Smith’s casting elicited because she deserves better than that. Yet her presence in this role has obviously signaled something interesting, far more fascinating than Channel 5 typically offers. Were they willing to rise to the occasion and give a hugely charismatic actress her dues with a role deserving of her talent? Or were they going to go all Channel 5 about it?
Anne Boleyn takes place in the five months leading up to her execution. She is a woman in a precarious position, a power player who is all too aware that her crown is slipping. Henry veers between fury and awe at his Queen, the court is full of whispers about her supposed deviances, and there’s a new girl on the block in the form of Jane Seymour. Always an outsider to the machinations of the Tudor court, even as the consort to Henry VIII, Anne may be doomed but she’s not ready to give up without a fight.
It doesn’t take long in Episode One for Anne Boleyn to establish itself as Not That Kind of Historical Drama. After waking from a nightmare, Anne heads to her husband’s bed-chamber, wakes him with an erotic chokehold, then he goes down on his pregnant wife. The notion of a historical drama getting sexy is hardly unheard of in a post-Rome world where the past two decades of the genre have been widely defined by their willingness to knock boots. Indeed, the Boleyn story has largely been seen as a prime example of this trend, whether it’s the exceedingly horny Showtime series The Tudors or any Philippa Gregory novel, with the latter further propelling the image of Boleyn as a heartless schemer. Seriously, Gregory does not like Anne Boleyn, and it’s kind of weird how much she played up the widely refuted smears that she was sleeping with her brother. Novelist Robin Maxwell even refused to blurb Gregory’s massive bestseller The Other Boleyn Girl because she found its characterization of Anne to be ‘vicious’ and ‘unsupportable.’
Anne Boleyn is clearly on its eponymous lead’s side. She is thoroughly the ‘other’ in court in almost every way and nobody will let her forget that, but she also wields her power, however soft it may be in comparison to the king, with an iron grip. In one scene, she kisses Jane Seymour, her latest rival for Henry’s love, who is played by the achingly youthful and wide-eyed Lola Petticrew. Once she pulls away, Anne smirks and says she gets what Henry sees in her. It’s a fascinating moment, somewhere between an obvious sexing up of the material and subversion of that much-derided image of Boleyn as the spiteful seductress of the century. It mostly works, if only because Jodie Turner-Smith is in total control of this material. She’s witty and sensual but also barely concealing her rage over her weakening status as Queen. Paapa Essiedu from I May Destroy You plays her brother George with a real keenness that makes his scenes with Anne some of the more underrated moments of the first episode. You fully understand how, seemingly against the odds, the Boleyn family forced their way into the highest echelons of power.
There’s money behind Anne Boleyn but not BBC money, so don’t expect Wolf Hall levels of grandeur, but those limitations offer creative opportunities. We sense the unnerving languidness of life in court, pampered yet forever under siege by the whims of the King and his yes men. Not much happens but it symbolizes everything, and the claustrophobia is palpable. It’s all somewhat simplified too, with much of the wider political machinations omitted or played down in order to focus on the gender and newly added racial tensions that single out Anne as a problem to be dealt with. That’s not to say it’s a bad decision. Anne Boleyn has basically become the historical drama version of Dracula, a vessel for creators to explore various ideas and concerns in their own way. This Anne Boleyn is a modern woman in every sense of the word, and she’s a reminder of the ways that history repeats itself. How often do we see stories of powerful women at first celebrated as vibrant and necessary before being knocked back down to earth as ‘difficult’ or ‘damaging’? (And yes, the makers of Anne Boleyn have been asked about Meghan Markle a lot.) History may go in cycles but our depictions of it should be riskier than that, and Channel 5 has made a valiant effort here. Maybe they’ll invest more in this kind of programming and retire all the poor-shaming bullsh*t.
Anne Boleyn wrapped up thisweek on Channel 5. No American release date has yet been announced.
Header Image Source: Photo by Emma McIntyre // Getty Images