Entertainment & Arts

The White Queen: Women in history rediscovered

Image caption The story takes place amid a war between two sides of the same family, The House of York and The House of Lancaster

Emma Frost has had a spell in the writing chair for the award-winning Shameless on channel Four.

Her latest project sees her take on a very different project for BBC One in the shape of the period drama, The White Queen - a lush adaptation of Philippa Gregory's best-selling historical novel series, The Cousins' War.

Set in 1464, one of the most turbulent periods in British history, amid the War of the roses - the long running battle between the Houses of York and Lancaster - the drama combines three of Gregory's novels, telling the story of love, deception, seduction and murder through the eyes of three very different, but equally ambitious women.

Elizabeth Woodville, an "unknown woman from history who has been rediscovered" by Gregory, has an "incredibly interesting story with real scale," says Frost.

Image caption Elizabeth Woodville is a commoner who falls in love with the newly crowned king

A widowed commoner who becomes the Queen of England after her marriage to King Edward IV, Woodville is the heroine of the story, "the one we root for".

"There were a lot of choices within the books but of the three characters, I felt they fell quite naturally into the protagonist, the antagonist and the pawn; the one who gets caught in everyone's battle," explains Frost.

What ties these women together is that they are equally ruthless in the quest for the seat of power.

Margaret Beaufort, played by Amanda Hale, encapsulates darkness as she orchestrates what happens to her son, Henry, from her first marriage to Edmund Tudor - who eventually becomes King Henry VII.

Meanwhile Anne Neville (Faye Marsay), the daughter of the Kingmaker the Earl of Warwick and described as "mistress misfortune", gets torn to pieces and loses everything she loves.

"It was incredibly challenging to revisit this history," says Frost, "to create a really big, epic drama for BBC prime time, which is celebrating the women of the Wars of the Roses and bringing them to the screen and into people's front rooms.

"There are incredibly complex plots and family relationships, so [the audience] will have to keep up.

"It's not background viewing and doesn't present a really easy viewing but it's still escapist."

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Media captionAuthor Philippa Gregory told BBC Breakfast actress Rebecca Ferguson had a "quite uncanny physical resemblance" to Edward IV's queen

As well as lead writer on Shameless (series 3-5) Frost's credits include Casualty, Doctors and more recently, an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's classic novel, Jamaica Inn, also for BBC One.

Her writing is inspired by what she reads in her spare time. But it's never fiction. Instead, books about psychology, philosophy, science and poetry "feed my mind in a very different way".

"I find it hard reading novels because I can't turn off the bit of my brain that says, 'how do you adapt it?'"

Gregory, a well respected author and historian, is considered by many to be the doyenne of the historical novel.

She worked closely with Frost, providing guidance on the historical accuracies of the period as well as having a presence on set. But The White Queen doesn't promise to be an exact serialisation of the novels on which it is based.

"There's a lot of compromise and cheating to broker between what works for TV drama and what will be dynamic viewing and brilliant storytelling, and what is true, historically.

"If you really looked at the real history, the male and female courts were separate. So, if you stuck to the truth you wouldn't have a show.

Image caption The entire series was filmed in Bruges

"Similarly, [at] the battle of Bosworth where the series ends, it's just the men. But you can't ask an audience to go on a nine-and-a half-hour journey with these three women and in the last half hour, say 'now it's about the men and the women are going to stay at home'.

"I hope the audience will feel that we have taken and dramatised the very best of the books and added things that may surprise or thrill.

"I hope [they can] enjoy them as separate, complementary things," she adds.

Ben Stephenson, controller of BBC drama, has called The White Queen "one of the most ambitious series the BBC has made".

Filmed entirely in Bruges and its surrounding area, the drama is certainly rich viewing as it sets out as a glorious, high summer love story before taking the viewer into the world of the court and its intrigue.

Rebecca Ferguson, who plays Woodville, credits the Belgian city with authenticating her performance.

"It's a mediaeval town where everything is real," she explains.

"There's the bell ringing from the tower and 90% of the time you're dressed in regal clothes.

Image caption The story is told through the eyes of three ambitious women

"It feeds everything."

When we first meet Woodville, she is a 27-year-old widow, desperate to provide for and protect her two young boys.

Her relationship with the newly crowned King, Edward IV is youthful, but she is soon thrown into life as a queen who must play a role in a political game where the stakes are high.

Her love for him brings with it massive consequences for her family.

"With the flick of a coin she's out of power and the throne is no longer hers," says Ferguson, who was drawn to the role because of Woodville's strength of character.

"She's a mediaeval rebel. I figured pretty quickly that this was a woman who had power. She was devoted, strong [and] intelligent."

Born and raised in Sweden, The White Queen is 29-year-old Ferguson's first role in a period drama.

But her co-star, Max Irons, who plays King Henry IV, says she is definitely the one to play Woodville.

"The minute Rebecca walked in, everyone knew it was her."

The White Queen begins on BBC One on Sunday 16 June.

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