For months, the UK red tops were full of the blind casting versus historical accuracy debate surrounding the new three-part drama Anne Boleyn (initially broadcast in the UK 1st-3rd June 2021 on free-to-air service Channel 5) and finally the figures are in.
The programme, which divided critics, commentators and the public, was controversial for its blind casting of Jodie Turner-Smith into the role of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII. While the Evening Standard rather quaintly commented that Turner-Smith’s Boleyn was “striking” enough to “silence any nay-sayers”, The Telegraph called it “a lumpen and leaden bore”, The Independent “very silly”, and controversial actor Lawrence Fox railed on Twitter that Boleyn was “a straight, white female” – terms that would have been meaningless to Anne herself.
Ordinary viewers may have tweeted their willingness to give it a go, and their confusion by the historical inaccuracies, but in the end, the racy sex scenes and same-sex kiss between Turner-Smith’s Boleyn and Lola Petticrew’s Jane Seymour did not persuade viewers to actually tune in to the revisionist drama.
The Channel 5 and Sony-backed Fable Pictures co-production opened with just 774,000 viewers, despite all the publicity surrounding it, or just a 5.2 per cent audience share. These figures seem even worse when compared to the 2.19 million viewers (13.2 per cent) the far lower profile Our Yorkshire Vet gained in the same slot a week earlier.
No doubt established actor Turner-Smith will live to perform another day, but the question is whether newcomer-screenwriter Eve Hedderwick Turner will be able to attract any interest around her next project, which she told Radio Times might be the retelling of the story of Catherine Howard, another of Henry VIII’s doomed wives.
It’s not certain what caused the lack of interest in the production – whether the story is overtold, the writing wasn’t up to scratch or the colour-blind casting jarred with audiences – but maybe viewers are experiencing Tudor fatigue. After all, we’ve already seen The Virgin Queen (1955) A Man For All Seasons (1966/1988), Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), Elizabeth (1988), The Virgin Queen (2005), The Tudors (2007-2010), Elizabeth The Golden Age (2007) The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), Wolf Hall (2015), The Spanish Princess (2019-2020) and even Six The Musical (2017).
The Independent’s review of this latest offering hints at how hard it is to refresh such a well-known story: “To call it revelatory would be a mistake. It’s almost as if a woman famously beheaded by order of her husband lived quite a miserable existence. Who’d have thought?”. Anne Boleyn is even directed by Lynsey Miller, who produced the better-received Natalie Portman/Scarlett Johansson The Other Boleyn Girl in 2008, which made £57 million against a budget of £24 million.
Perhaps the production’s biggest impact though will end up being its stunning gowns. Recent period dramas such as Anne Boleyn, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Bridgerton have driven up interest in the square neckline to the point where it has featured on the catwalks of Bottega Veneta, amongst others. Meanwhile Asos now has hundreds of this type of dress on sale and fashion-shopping app Lyst reports a 63 per cent quarter on quarter rise in searches for ‘square neck’ dresses.
The lesson seems to be that if you want to tell a Tudor tale these days, you’re inevitably going to be judged against the £7 million masterpiece that was Wolf Hall and you’re going to have to do better or tell the story very differently.