Thursday, June 8, 2017


After the BBC decided against filming novelist Philippa Gregory's sequel to The White Queen, the Starz channel, which broadcast Queen in the U.S., decided to do it themselves, with the help of Queen's main writer, Emma Frost. Though the title might sound like a prequel The White Princess follows immediately after the end of the White Queen series, which means that Richard III is dead and Henry Tudor has become Henry VII, the founder of a new dynasty. All but one of the actors whose characters survived Queen have been replaced, mainly so the characters will look more like their ages at the opening of Princess than the original actors did, the one actor retained already being elderly. The title princess is known to history as Elizabeth of York, and to the show as Lizzie (Jodie Comer). Daughter of "White Queen" Elizabeth Woodville (Essie Davis) and the late Edward IV, Lizzie had a scandalous fling with her uncle, the late Richard, before the king's overthrow. She is now to be married to Henry Tudor (Jacob Collins-Levy) to give the new dynasty an extra degree of legitimacy. Lizzie's mother gradually becomes her enemy, since Elizabeth would rather see her own son on the throne now than a grandson later. According to history and legend, Elizabeth's two sons are dead already, killed in the Tower of London by Richard or someone else. According to the show, and apparently according to Philippa Gregory's own belief, Elizabeth managed to have one of her boys smuggled out of the Tower and replaced with a "changeling" who died with the other son. The boy who lived grows up to be Perkin Warbeck (Patrick Gregory), the leader or figurehead of the major challenge to Henry VII's reign and an impostor according to most historians. Perkin is sponsored by his theoretical aunt, and Richard III's vengeful sister, the Grand Duchess of Burgundy, and by an opportunistic king of Scotland who arranges a marriage for Perkin with a girl from the local aristocracy. Regarded as a usurper, Henry finds it difficult to get foreign support for his cause. Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain will not consent to a marriage between their daughter and Henry and Lizzie's firstborn son Arthur until the English have eliminated all pretenders. That means not just Warbeck but the potential pretender Edward Plantagenet, aka "Teddy" or "King Warwick," Lizzie's dimwit cousin and the son of mad Prince George from White Queen. Teddy is kept in the Tower while his sister Maggie (Rebecca Benson) becomes part of Lizzie's household and the White Princess's earnest, anxious little conscience.

Perkin Warbeck's invasion of England is the central event of the series, which exploits the pretender for all he's worth and then some, making him a threat to Henry even while imprisoned and reduced to servitude after his humiliating flight from the battlefield. Warbeck is inflated as a threat because Princess probably wouldn't have enough drama even for its modest eight episodes otherwise. His presence underscores Henry's almost paranoid insecurity while forcing Lizzie onto the path she abhorred when her own mother took it and despised when Henry's mother did likewise. Queens (or virtual queens in the case of Henry's mom) often find themselves having to choose between their sons and other relations, not to mention all conventional morals and ethics. Elizabeth would happily ruin Lizzie's life by destroying her husband and sons to put her own boy on the throne, while the fearsome Margaret Beaufort/Tudor (Michelle Fairley) consented to child murder -- the killing of Elizabeth's other son and the changeling -- to clear Henry's path to the throne. The whole point, dramatically, of making Perkin Warbeck exactly what he claims to be is to force on Lizzie a similar choice between her sons -- the younger one will become Henry VIII -- and her brother. In other words, Princess shares Queen's bleak view of power and family, a view common enough to historical fiction, if perhaps more bleak this time than history itself, to make the genre George R. R. Martin's inspiration for his particularly bleak fantasy novels.

While nearly four years passed between the initial broadcast of White Queen and the debut of White Princess, I'd only finished watching Queen a week before Princess began. That made it jarring to see so many familiar characters suddenly look so different, with the producers sometimes making no effort at continuity. The Earl of Stanley, Margaret Beaufort's equally cunning husband, was fully bearded when last seen in Queen, for instance, but in Princess Richard Dillaine plays him clean-shaven. The most jarring transformation, however, was the switch from Amanda Hale to Michelle Fairley as Margaret Tudor. Not only is Fairley considerably older than Hale, but their interpretations of the character are dramatically different. Hale's Margaret is cunning but hysterically fanatical,  with a constant air of flop sweat around her and a habit of breaking into anachronistic cries like, "Whoa whoa whoa!" when things go wrong. Fairley's is more like an archetypal wicked stepmother -- or mother-in-law, in this case -- cold, arrogant and imperious in her new position as The King's Mother until her murderous past threatens to catch up with her, forcing her to fresh murder to keep her once-beloved Jasper Tudor from exposing her past crimes. She gets found out anyway, because White Princess is very much a "nobody wins" sort of show. Henry and Lizzie may be secure on the throne at the end, but they hardly seem happy, and they have a curse to worry about, placed by Elizabeth on the killers of her sons. There's not really much drama left in the life of Elizabeth of York after this point, but the fact that Princess didn't end with a title card telling us when she died, I suspect that Starz or the show's producers may still hope to go back to the Tudor well. I suspect that the show already has drawn from Gregory's next novel, in which Maggie Plantagenet/Pole is the central character, and the story could be carried forward all the way to Gregory's already-filmed The Other Boleyn Girl. While I felt that Princess went a little far bending history to its dramatic purposes, I liked the drama enough on its own terms that I wouldn't mind seeing more of English history through Gregory's or Emma Frost's eyes.

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