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Wednesday 21 November 2018

Off with the White Queen's head

The White Queen (BBC1)

The White Queen
The White Queen

COULD The White Queen signal an abrupt end to the reign of the costume drama as one of television's most popular genres?

Since it started three weeks ago, the 10-part BBC1 series, set during England's War of the Roses and made in conjunction with American cable channel Starz, has lost over a million viewers in Britain.

Last Sunday's episode was watched by 4.2 million people, leaving The White Queen trailing in third place behind the gentle, rustic ramble that is Countryfile and the wheezing Top Gear.

Ratings aren't always a reliable guide to a drama's quality, of course. Mad Men and Game of Thrones, both on Sky Atlantic, have small audiences compared to The White Queen's – although it's worth remembering that the take-up for Sky subscriptions in Britain is proportionally less than it is Ireland.

But Mad Men and Game of Thrones are great series; The White Queen, which has been widely ridiculed by critics and viewers, patently is not. According to those who know about these things, it's less historically accurate than the Philippa Gregory novels it's based on, which apparently aren't all that historically accurate to begin with.

FLAWS

Still, you don't have to be an expert on English medieval history to know that not everyone in the grim, grimy, hygienically challenged 15th century had perfect, fluorescently white Hollywood teeth, or looked like they'd just washed their hair with Timotei.

Picking out gaffes in historical dramas is now a sport in itself. There are endless hours of fun to be had cataloguing the flaws in Downton Abbey: the ridiculously informal relationship between toffs and servants; the anachronistic dialogue (you can be sure no one in the early years of the 20th century used the snarky expressions "As if" and "Whatever"); the fleeting glimpses of television aerials in a couple of shots.

The nitpickers have also had a field day with Foyle's War for lazily using red Routemaster buses, which didn't hit the roads until the 1950s, to suggest the period. The series has been criticised for showing a Blitz-era London where people leave the lights on and the windows uncovered, and drive around in cars with the headlamps at full blaze.

It would be one thing if all the producers of The White Queen have to worry about are characters that look a little too well groomed for the time; instead, the historical howlers are piling up like bodies on a battlefield, week after week.

Most of them have to do with wardrobe malfunctions. The most glaring is the mysterious appearance of a zip – an ingenious little device that wouldn't be patented until 1851, nearly 400 years after the events depicted in The White Queen – at the back of one of the heroine's dresses.

DECOR

Eagle-eyed mistake-spotters also noticed that King Edward was wearing a jacket with popper-buttons, which weren't dreamt up by German inventor Heribert Bauer until 1851.

And then there's the armour, which belongs to a later period. And the modern drainpipes. And the padded jackets. And the queen's manicured nails. And the too-modern-looking decor.

And the fact that Belgium, where The White Queen was filmed, doesn't look a whole lot like England, even if you squint.

The White Queen might just get away with all this sloppiness if it was fun, but it's not. It's dull, pedestrian and clunky, and the lead performances – by the wishy-washy Rebecca Ferguson and Sam 'Son of Jeremy' Irons, who acts more like a boyband member than a king – vapid.

It's a sanitised version of horrible history aimed at a sedate Sunday night audience more used to Monarch of the Glen and Call the Midwife. The White Queen, which took six months to make and cost €30 million (what did they spend it on?), will be showing on Starz in August.

God knows what an audience used to the full-throttle, blood-and-sex-drenched fury of that channel's brilliant Spartacus: Blood and Sand will make of it. It's telling, though, that Starz insisted on extra nudity, sex and violence for the American cut.

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