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by Alison Willmore
August 9, 2013 6:04 PM
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'The White Queen' Writer Emma Frost on Sex, Historical Accuracy and Making 'The Real 'Game of Thrones''

'The White Queen' Company Pictures

"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.

Emma Frost Starz

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.

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13 Comments

  • Glenda Black | January 13, 2014 5:58 PMReply

    Hello ! ,
    I would like too know when the next season #2 of The White Queen will return ?. to Starz. Thank You

  • Alex | October 22, 2013 12:36 PMReply

    Hahaha Emma Frost writing the White Queen... Marvel readers everywhere must be laughing their ass off XD

  • kimbell | September 1, 2013 7:37 PMReply

    wow everyone gets to hurt by silly words.... this is tv.....made to keep us watching...I sooooo love history,watched every movie and show that's like this one...I do love love the shows that say they are based on true events. we have to understand writers have a way to make everything bigger and brighter. Lets not take this to heart.Great actors ,great writing ..That's all....ps.the Tudors is still one of my favs. lol yay..wish I had a time machine, Id soooooooooooooo give the real stories of these times. yet ill still watch every show that comes out about this time period,as will many other fans...pss...Pillars of the earth was amazing also....dated way before all of this and the books take the cake....love and light..xoxoxoxo to our beautiful and never knowing history . oneday ill meet my maker and find out the real truth. :)

  • Helen Murphy | August 14, 2013 4:17 AMReply

    The problem with you saying that this is a drama, rather than a history lesson is that the average person watching these period dramas does think that the basic facts are accurate, with a bit of filling for effect. Everyone knows that the old Hollywood films were total fiction, however this is a recent BBC historical drama and a lot has been discovered over the last fifty years. I have only recently become interested in history, but had previously watched a few of these more recent dramas and assumed them to be at least basically correct. I was amazed to find that this was not so, but not everyone will look deeper, they will quote things from this series as fact. There is no reason why supposedly researched information should not be correct, otherwise why bother researching? I have taken an interest in this period for approximately 2 months ( hated history at school) and yet I know a lot more than Philippa Gregory does ( and she's the researcher).

  • Louise | August 14, 2013 2:51 AMReply

    Upper class people certainly would not have been filthy, they bathed quite frequently. The common people would probably have bathed less, without indoor plumbing, until the 20th century, a weekly bath was the norm for most people. And linen, which was worn next to the skin, was cleaned and changed frequently, having clean linen was the mark of a good housewife. Nor would their teeth have been bad, in 'Medieval Lives' Terry Jones remarks on the absence of tooth decay in medieval skeletons, they ate less soft, processed foods, and had very little sugar.

  • K Glynn | August 13, 2013 6:08 PMReply

    So someone working on a historical series does not believe that historical accuracy is important, well she chose the right series, because Ms Gregory doesn't believe in it either. The fiction part should belong to the interaction between characters that we have no way of knowing, it should not play fast and loose with known historical facts, then it becomes stupid, useless and irrelevant. This series has been neither good fiction or good history.

  • A. Towne | August 12, 2013 3:01 AMReply

    Typical Phillipa Gregory-inspired attitude of "historical accuracy doesn't matter" for the usual lame "reasons". These were real people and while creative liberties are one thing, Gregory is notorious for blithely playing fast and loose with inarguable facts simply in order to advance her own, rather odd, ideas of what "historical fiction" is. Happy to miss this.

  • JaySmack | August 10, 2013 10:55 AMReply

    I found the tagline "Men go to battle, women wage war," to be ridiculous and insulting. You reduce the individuals who wage the wars to merely "going to battle" and take the very ones who historically run from war as fast as their manicured feet can carry them to some post of heroism.
    Appealing to women is one thing but you don't have to lie or denigrate the ones who actually fight wars to do it.
    Or do you.
    I think women's auto vaginals-worship has reached a nauseating apogee. I'll be skipping this series.

  • JaySmack | August 15, 2013 12:42 PM

    "Insecurities and mother issues?" Someone clearly should have skipped that lobotomy before they decided to question me. Pointing out the fallacy of an ad campaign's tagline is more indicative of "insecurities" than you questioning my integrity is indicative of "intelligence."
    Your caterwauling amounts to an emotional whine because I pointed out something you wish I hadn't.
    "There is nothing that says what men do is bad or less important"
    Uhm, "battle" is a LOT less important than "war." If they had wanted to be honest the tagline would have been, "Women have catfights, men wage war."
    And a shame you didn't bother to actually read the piece. EmmaFrost is totally disrespectful and dismissive of the fact men die and are maimed in war, while the women --who apparently "wage war"-- sit to see who wins. What's wrong with pointing this out? Or did I disturb your gyno-centric mental masturbation?
    "And to ask why I "add so much meaning to it," shows how little thought you put into what I said. The real question is "How anyone can take perfumed ladies sitting around gossiping about nonsense and add importance to that during a war?" I put a lot of thought into my criticism, you put none at all. And why doesn't that surprise me?
    Nice attempt at deflection though. I know you had to try.

  • Jamie | August 11, 2013 9:14 AM

    Wow someone clearly has some insecurities and possibly some mother issues. How can you take a simple tagline and add so much more meaning to it? Maybe they were saying "although the men bravely go out there and physically fight the battles, women also do their part in the fight but with different methods". There is nothing that says what men do is bad or less important. Not unless that's what you want to see.

  • ScottSummers | August 9, 2013 7:44 PMReply

    Is her name seriously Emma f***ing Frost? And she's writing a show called "the white queen"....that's unbelieveably weird. I think she's messing with all of our minds....

  • dnwilliams | August 9, 2013 6:23 PMReply

    X-Men cooOOoOincidence!

  • Ninoy | August 9, 2013 6:27 PM

    I thought the same. Lol