“The White Queen,” a 10-part period drama premiering on Starz tomorrow, August 10 at 8pm, looks at a well-chronicled moment in history through the perspective of the characters whose stories are not often told — the women.
Based on three novels from “The Cousins’ War” series by Philippa Gregory (the author of “The Other Boleyn Girl”), “The White Queen” follows a trio of women during the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century — Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson), consort to Edward IV (Max Irons); Lady Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale), the highly religious mother of Henry Tudor, later Henry VII; and Lady Anne Neville (Faye Marsay), the Earl of Warwick’s daughter.
As the men battle with swords, the women make use of the weapons allowed them — ones of words, court politics, alliances, seduction and manipulation. It’s a feminine take on history, but no less one about a fight for survival and power. Indiewire met with Emma Frost, the series’ head writer, to discuss historical accuracy and inescapable comparisons to a certain HBO series.
I wanted to first ask you about the language, because I know you’ve worked on contemporary fare like “Shameless” previous to this. How do you go about having language that evokes the period without sounding ridiculous?
If I simply researched it myself, and I was writing a show straight from the history, then this would be a totally different conversation. Philippa did tons of research and she’s a historian. I had a relationship with her novels, so what I feel is that the novels I read, it doesn’t matter to me whether they’re based on history or they’re complete invention, I had to bring those to screen, retaining as much as I can so that the fans who reached for those books love the show, and we’re retaining the qualities that made the books so popular. So I take my lead on language from Philippa’s books.
When we discussed it, there were other ways to go with the language and ways that might have been, if we were in school — “Oh, is this absolutely accurate?” But it would’ve sounded less immediate and harder to understand. So there is an immediacy to the language and there is a modernity to the language. But the truth is, if we were being absolutely period-correct they would be speaking Middle English and nobody would understand a bloody word anybody is saying. So you can’t be accurate because if you’re accurate, no show, really, and no one would watch, except for one scholar.
On that note, how important was it in the production to think about period accuracy in terms of the details? I saw that a few of the reviews in the U.K. [where the series is currently airing on BBC One] brought that up.
First of all, it’s a drama. We’re not making a documentary, it’s no history lesson, we’re not there wagging our finger. The truth would be: they’d all have rotten teeth, they would be filthy and covered in lice and itching all the time. Do you want to watch that show? I don’t think so. Also, the male and female courts were entirely separate in the daytime. Men and women only came together privately — even at dinners, they sat at different tables. How do you write that show? I don’t know how to write that show.
There is this obsession people have with historical accuracy, and I think what I would say to that is, first of all, the history that we have is not what happened, it’s what got written down. And what got written down is largely about men’s lives, and what got written down is filtered through the lens of the particular prejudices of the person who wrote it down. So every historian throughout history has been influenced by the king at the time or the politicians at the time and they’re trying to please that people that they’re writing the history. There is no such thing as historical truth — every single version of history says more about the era that history book was written than it does about the history itself.
What you do is, you go to the source and you make creative choices based on what you think will be a show that people want to watch and that will be keeping in tone with the books. Designers make choices and actors make choices and costume designers make choices and so on. Some of what people have said [in the press] is complete nonsense. They have this obsession with saying there are zips in the costumes. There is not one zip in any costumes! There are hooks and eyes which come from the Iron Age, which is absolutely period correct.
The underlying dynastic, clashing houses reasons for this war are pretty removed from any modern-day concern. How do you go about threading that into these more understandable dramas concerning children and self-preservation and love?
Well, it’s a civil war, and I think civil war is something we can understand. And it’s gang warfare, and most of the characters are incredibly young, and their life expectancy was incredibly short. I don’t think there’s any particular difficulty in threading the big backdrop with the personal concerns, because, to quote the feminist adage, the personal is the political. And so what is happening in the big picture is affecting people’s lives in a much smaller way.
These women, they were trying to protect their families — if my son is in line to the throne, then he might get murdered, and I have to protect him from that and I’ve got to maneuver. It’s very operatic, the backdrop is this huge show. But I think it does come down to the personal details of these women’s lives, which are about love and loss and betrayal and having kids and losing a parent and all of those kinds of things.
Tell me about portraying this war through the tools that are available for these female characters, which are very different from the literal weapons that are available to the men.
Clearly the women have a different arsenal of weapons, and the men go out on a field and whack at each other with a sword, very testosterone-fueled and immediate. I think the women, as now, have to find a more subtle way of pulling the strings and getting what they want. There’s some quite interesting stuff that happens in later episodes where Jacquetta [played by Janet McTeer] and Elizabeth find out that George [the brother of the king, played by David Oakes] has betrayed Edward, and Elizabeth tries to tell him but he say, “Oh, he’s my brother” — he’s got his blinkers on.
They go and talk to the boy’s mother, and very cleverly say, “Well, if someone were to tell him that Edward would forgive him if he came home then I’m sure Edward would forgive him. And if he doesn’t, he’s probably going to get killed with a red rose on his collar, and you’re York and you’d never want that to happen.” They do it all in the background, and it goes full-circle and George comes home and Edward says, “See, I told you George’d come back.” So it’s quite fun — it’s through wit and a better psychological understanding the women have, that they think several steps ahead. There’s a network of language and gossip and rumor that they manipulate, and when appropriate, they manipulate the men sexually.
The first episode showcases this great romance, but the stakes are so high for Elizabeth and her family, and it’s so tied up with her future and the possibility that it’s a ruse on the part of Edward.
I mean, she fancies him. She’s not sure she trusts him, but thinks, let’s try and play this situation to get what I want. Of course, he thinks she’s just going to have sex with him — and all she knows in that moment is that she really wants to, as a red-blooded woman. But it would be a disaster, she knows, if she gives into her own desires there, so it’s not about letting him have what he wants, it’s about letting her have what she wants. But I think their love was real, and historically they had 12 children that lived and 15 pregnancies, so they weren’t slack in the bedroom department.
It’s an interesting combination of the tropes of romance and some genuine urgency.
And it escalates really quickly, doesn’t it? By the end of the first episode you’ve crossed the threshold into the world of the court. We start in this accessible place for an audience where boy meets girl, “Romeo & Juliet,” different clans and wrong sides of the tracks, one’s in power and one has got nothing. But from that, you step into her shoes and look out through her eyes, and you enter this complex world with Elizabeth, so that we really root for her and we really care about her. If we just went in episode one, “Politics, this and that and this person and that person,” you would go, “Oh, I don’t really know what’s going on.”
Related to the romance, I saw that tabloid report that the U.S. version is racier than the U.K. cut. Is that true?
A tiny bit. BBC is a public service broadcaster, and “The White Queen” goes out on BBC One, which is the mainstream primetime channel. If we were on BBC Two, they’d probably be the same cut. But it’s BBC One, and its primetime, and so there is a taste threshold that stops a fraction before the Starz taste threshold. It fascinates and amuses me. There’s a shot of Max’s bum in episode one, in the Starz version. Quite frankly, I think it should be in the English version, because it’s a very nice bum and a very nice shot. And hilariously, the audience in England was tweeting “Where is Max Irons’ bum? Give us Max Irons’ bum! How dare the BBC not give us Max Irons’ bum!” So it’s actually quite funny.
They’re fractionally different — I think it’s something like 15 seconds or 20 seconds per episode. If someone gets stabbed, in the BBC version they’ll cut something else and in the Starz version you might see a squirt of blood. You’ll see Max’s bum. And this is a love story about a couple that had 12 children, and presumably they got them by having sex with each other, and I don’t know really know why we would shy away from that. And the power thing, it’s hugely important that the bedroom talk changes the outcome of some of the events. I’m for the grownup version, to be honest.
Anything that even touches this territory and look now gets compared to “Game of Thrones,” despite the fact that it’s a fantasy series and in this case, “The White Queen” is historical. Are there good and bad aspects to that?
I don’t know that it’s good or bad. I have watched very little of “Game of Thrones,” because I knew that the books are based on the Wars of the Roses. I didn’t want to watch something that might influence me without me knowing it. So you just kind of go “Alright, blinkers. I’ll just respond to Philippa’s books and to what we’re doing with our own show.” Someone did say to me that our show truthfully is “the real ‘Game of Thrones,'” because it is the real history, and it’s told though the women, and it hasn’t got the dragons and those supernatural elements. I see no reason why they can’t coexist — it’s been great in England, there have been a lot of people tweeting, “Thank God for ‘The White Queen’ because that ‘Game of Thrones’ shaped-hole in my life now has something to fill it!” I’m looking forward to “Game of Thrones” when we’re at the end of this, and I can safely watch it.