Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The White Queen

Having now watched the final episode of this BBC adaptation, I have a new standard for bad historical fiction.

It is hard to know what kept me with this one to the end: the first half of the series was less bad than the second half, and some of the performances - especially James Frain as the earl of Warwick, and Rupert Graves as Stanley - did keep your attention. And the basic story of the wars of the Roses is one that's well worth telling, and too little known: again, especially the first part, up to 1471, where frankly this one should have ended. At least we now know, mercifully, there will be no second series. When it became clear that we were being told that the younger of the princes in the Tower had in fact survived, I started getting hot flushes and fearing a storyline in which Perkin Warbeck was not an imposter.

But the real question: what was it that made this particular series so bad? I haven't read the novels, so I don't know if this was a lousy book which screenwriters couldn't rescue, or a good book wrecked by a crass adaptation. For what it is, I'd pick out a couple of key flaws.

Naturally, I'm going to complain about the portrayal of religious life, which rang utterly false - the only pious character, Margaret Beaufort, was depicted as almost wholly deranged, and nobody else seemed to have any functioning Christianity at all. The magic made no sense at all. Still, getting religion right is really hard. Even the sainted Hilary Mantel, who sets the gold standard of historical writing, seems to me to fall short on that one (though there is falling short, and there is blowing up on the launchpad).

More strikingly: there was not a single character of any significance, and indeed scarcely a speaking part, who was not a member of the high nobility. We saw nothing of any real people (it didn't help that the battles seemed to have about ten people on each side). It made Downton Abbey look like gritty realism.

But did I say 'character'? Those nobles weren't really characters, just chess pieces who moved around doing what the historical outline said they did, with simple motivations inserted to get them from A to B. And when the facts didn't quite fit the rationalised motivations given, well, too bad, you just worked around it.

And that I think is the real problem: a chronic lack of inventiveness and imagination. What we had was a 21st-century soap draped over some 15th-century characters. None of the blanks in the story were filled in with anything that rang true.

Historians usually complain that historical fictions get things wrong, which does seem to me to miss the point a bit: they are fictions. This one had a much, much graver fault: it failed to make anything up.

1 comment:

  1. Ooh, it got right up your nose!! I've not had the pleasure, but have had an obsession with Catherine Swynford (and thus the Beauforts) since reading Anya Seaton's 'Katherine' as a love lorn and hopelessly romantic teenager (difficult to imagine I know) - the book very much a work of fiction I'm told (The aforementioned lady and Cathy from Wuthering Heights gave C her name!).
    However, I do know you may have a soft spot for the Tudors... you should watch 'The Other Boleyn Girl' now; it'll be a treat!!