This review contains spoilers.
One difficulty with historical dramas for anyone who spent their schooldays poring, not scrawling Morrissey lyrics, over Trevelyan’s History Of England is that it’s hard not to have the endings ‘spoiled’. Even the most assiduous avoider of historical fact can’t have swerved the knowledge that Richard III was, you know, a thing, making all that ‘will they crown little Edward?’ intrigue from a week or two ago a bit redundant.
The same goes for this week’s finale of The White Queen, the drama that’s taught us good things come to those who wait for Rupert Graves to show up halfway through a ten-part series. Hear mention of The Battle of Bosworth Field and bells about kingdoms, horses, and dead Richard IIIs start ringing. Will Richard defeat Henry Tudor? Well, no. Which way will Stanley turn? Er, that way.
When a drama is good enough though, knowing what happens at the end doesn’t spoil it. We’re deprived of the gasps and shock, yes, but the spectacle, characters and insights see you through (if they didn’t, who’d ever go to see the film of the book, or enjoy a rewatch?). The question then, is whether The White Queen finale was strong enough to work despite us knowing its outcome? Not quite, but very nearly, is my answer.
Before we reached the climactic battle, court had to contend with a couple of premature deaths and a spot of incest. Poor Anne and her sickly son were looking peakier than the Lake District and consequently, neither made it past the half-way mark. Though it’s perhaps unwise to admit in public that a child’s death failed to move you, the pallid heir’s slo-mo overwrought demise was more a ticked box than an affecting moment for me. One down, one to go.
While little Edward was rasping his last breath, his dad was publicly salivating over his hot niece from Skins. Pervy uncle Richard (equipped with special perv window – did you see?) may have explained his behaviour away as a strategic manoeuvre to weaken Henry Tudor’s campaign, but no man looks at a lutenist that lustily without meaning it.
Anne’s death was regrettable (life pre-antibiotics was a sad business), but the character had never been an easy one to care for. Since they married, the Royal pair have made a dreary couple. They never talked so much as positioned themselves atmospherically next to burning fires and exchanged terse, tight-lipped words about heirs, England, and curses. Even their names make them sound like the neighbours you feel have to invite round for Christmas drinks, only for them to spend the night making pass agg snipes at one another about who forgot to pack the orange squash on their walking holiday in the Chilterns.
The real wedge between this version of Anne Neville and my affections though, is that unlike The White Queen’s smirking, whispering Lord Stanley, whom you could shave, stick in an Armani suit and plonk in the twenty-first century halls of power without him or anyone else breaking their stride, she’s resolutely of her era. Her belief in witches and curses, while entirely apposite for the period, cleaves her from modern sensibilities, even if her nightmares do take the form of Sisters of Mercy videos. Witchy Elizabeth and devout Margaret were just as Medieval in their beliefs of course (as proved by their reaction to that eclipse, which, seeing as nobody looked at it through those special glasses you get in the newspaper, must have blinded the lot of them), but there was something sympathetically modern about each in The White Queen, whether it was Liz’s sexual confidence -“I want you upstairs, I tire of women” she once told Edward upon his return from battle – , or Mags’ political nous.
Margaret was put through the wringer this week, bemused by God’s will, and lying to her son that she still believed the Lord meant him to prosper at Bosworth. More pressing than whether God was on Henry’s side was whether his step-dad was. Luckily for him, dilatory Stanley declared for the Tudors. Putting Stanley in his place and naming herself Margaret Regina was vindication for all those nights spent passed out from hunger on the chapel floor and grazing her saints knees with prayer. Call it God’s will or sheer bloody mindedness, but she finally achieved her prize.
Battles were neither The White Queen’s strong point, nor, thankfully its real focus. Quite understandably on a budget squeezed by the needs of lavish period ensemble drama, the military clashes always felt underpopulated. It was hard to shake the sense you were watching a tastily filmed historical society re-enactment on a Christenings-heavy Sunday morning. That didn’t stop the violence from doing its gruesome job though, and both Brackenbury and Richard’s forest-floor deaths were suitably horrid.
So we leave the Yorks and Lancasters, with most of them in the grave, and a new pair of buttocks sitting on the English throne.
It wasn’t always brilliant, The White Queen – far from it in the early weeks – but like its women, it never lacked for admirable ambition. As Margaret’s fate teaches, those of us who held fast and made it to the end were well-rewarded. Now come on BBC and Starz, let’s have The White Princess for next summer please.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, here.
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