Katy Burns: Hey, it’s history! Sort of.
One thing for sure about titled nobility in 15th-century England: They had access to really great tooth whiteners. Their perfect choppers fairly gleamed in their faces.
This is just one of the gems gleaned from The White Queen, a 10-part historical epic currently showing on the cable channel Starz. It is chockablock full of similarly interesting historical facts.
For example, not only did the ruling class of those days have terrific teeth – contrary to cruel stereotypes of the English, perpetuated no doubt by their dastardly French foes – but they were amazingly beautiful people. They had well-toned bodies (which we see a lot of) with flawless skin and lush, gleaming hair. Not to mention beautifully manicured nails.
The White Queen purports to show the War of the Roses, a tangled battle nearly 600 years ago between two branches of the Plantagenet family over who would be the king of England. One bunch, the Lancasters, chose the red rose as their symbol. The Yorks favored the white. And in the course of the show there are – in fine family feud tradition – a lot of switching of which color roses adorn which (medieval equivalent of) lapels at any given time. In the course of the first hour-long episode alone, one of the lead clans changed allegiances (and rose colors) without batting a collective eye.
Coming episodes promise to feature much betrayal and back-stabbing as well as lots of soft focus bodice ripping and bed-hopping.
If you can’t always follow the plot, don’t worry. In fact, if you try too hard to keep everything straight it will only take away from the sheer fun of it all. And you’re American, so why should you care about the boring details of ancient English history?
All you really need to know is that the “White Queen” of the title is Elizabeth, a commoner (sound familiar?) who set out to meet the young king, Edward, who was instantly besotted with her and married her before anyone could talk him out of it. Edward is a hunk. Elizabeth is all dewy-eyed innocence. At least she is until she meets Edward’s mother, a schemer who – along with the evil senior counselor Lord
Warwick – had her sights set on a French princess as a daughter-in-law.
Elizabeth – have I mentioned that her mother, Jacquetta, seems awfully familiar with witchery? – quickly makes it clear that she is not to be trifled with (unless of course the trifling is done by randy King Edward).
Mother-in-law is checked, for the moment, but of course we the viewers can be pretty sure that, like the Terminator, she will be back.
At least we hope so. Said mom, Duchess Cecily, is a prize, able to speak volumes by just raising her eyebrows. Jacquetta is a fittingly Machiavellian opponent.
Even seemingly guileless Elizabeth shows considerable promise, plus she may have inherited her mother’s gift for sorcery.
And they are not alone. There’s Lady Margaret. We’re not sure just who she is yet, but she’s connected with the clearly unscrupulous Lord Warwick, and we surely will see her again. And don’t forget the beautiful French princess. This is a show for the ladies, with the men – other than the devious Warwick – largely eye candy.
History tells us that life in the 15th century was short and brutish. Disease was rampant, medical care likely limited to leeches. Soap was in short supply, and toothpaste nonexistent. Life for the lower classes (which was almost everybody) was fairly miserable. But what does history know that can’t be improved on by a good scriptwriter?
The White Queen pretty much dispenses with the depressing (and unsightly) lower classes. Other than some beautifully gowned ladies-in-waiting to Duchess Cecily, about the only ordinary working person seen in the first hour was a woman serving dinner. The castles are immaculate, and the countryside – actually Belgium, since it was decided that England is too cluttered with satellite dishes and the like to pass as 15th-century territory – is nothing less than verdant perfection.
Turns out hair stylists were big in 15th-century Europe, as were sumptuous gowns and puffy shirts, not to mention mounds of billowy (and well-used) bed linens which, presumably, were washed and changed regularly but not by anyone we ever see.
Like servants, violence seems to be largely unseen, if episode one is any indication. The bloodiest event occurred off-camera. In an era when writers and directors strive weekly to throw before viewers the most gore-drenched scenes imaginable, The White Queen is a welcome exception. So far.
Is The White Queen over the top? Is the history shaky, the writing florid? Are the actors – some of them fine ones – having a great time chewing every piece of scenery in sight?
Yes. Yes. And yes! Why on earth would we watch otherwise?
The British, bless them, have a history stuffed with great characters they are happy to exploit shamelessly in the name of cheesy entertainment. And they are generous enough to share that history with the world, including with us, upstart former colonialists. I applaud that.
Or what is the alternative? We exploit our own history? George and Martha Washington naked, writhing in a pile of perfect sheets? John Adams, frolicking with Abigail in Massachusetts meadows? Oh, I think not.
(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)