"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.