Directed by Lynsey Miller, writer Eve Hedderwick Turner, with Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne (2021) on Channel 5
Review by Jonny Wright
Anne Boleyn is a three-part mini-series for Channel 5, set in the final five months before her execution. Rather than cast the beheaded Anne as a tragic footnote in Henry VIII’s story, this story is told from her perspective, with Henry very much in the supporting role. To make Anne a protagonist in her own right is a refreshing decision, given my abiding memory from school of his wives was ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived’ – a ditty which definitely would not pass the Bechdel test. Even more refreshing was the casting of a Black actress, Jodie Turner-Smith, to play the spurned queen.
The success of Bridgerton shows a hunger for diverse casting in period dramas being made now. As a kid who hated learning about the Tudors and Stuarts – none of them looked like me – it’s really important that we make history inclusive for all Britons. Miranda Kaufmann’s book Black Tudors: The Untold Story and David Olusoga’s Black and British show again that the Black presence in Britain started before the Windrush arrived. Filmed costume dramas are a famous British export, so it’s fantastic that Black actors are now being considered for these roles. However, unlike Bridgerton, where ‘Blackness’ was relevant to the story, in Anne Boleyn it is ignored. Neil Cross, the creator of Luther (with its eponymous hero played by Idris Elba), said he didn’t write Luther with a Black character in mind, and it would seem Eve Hedderwick Turner has taken the same approach with Anne Boleyn – the lead’s ‘race’ has been an afterthought. A nice afterthought, an afterthought that allows little Black girls to watch and believe they can be queens rather than servants, but an afterthought, nonetheless.
Here’s the thing, my Blackness isn’t an afterthought, it’s very present. I wake up everyday knowing I’m Black, and I get reminded of the fact when I go to the local fishmongers where the White guy behind the till tells my wife and I that this trout is ‘very expensive’, saying the same thing when we ask to buy olive oil. They were both super pricey, but we had to buy them just to save face. Actor Riz Ahmed, writing in The Good Immigrant anthology, talks about the Promised Land, ‘where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race.’ Where not everything has to be about race. It was nice to have Anne Boleyn and her brother George, played by Paapa Essiedu, be Black in previously white spaces and for it not to be an issue. It left the focus on intensely human, tender moments between them, such as when Anne has lost another baby – and, with that, the support of her husband.
Reimagining history in new ways is important, but just as important is to make sure that diversity runs deeper than just on-screen talent. The creative teams behind the scenes must also be diverse and diverse storytellers should be trusted to tell their stories their way. However, to really tell stories of ‘When We Were Queens’, storytellers will have to cast their nets a little wider than the British royal family. Anne Boleyn is a great step and in the right direction, but we have so much further to walk.