Last weekend saw the premiere of episode 1 of the hotly anticipated Starz series “Becoming Elizabeth”. I tuned in with some trepidation as historical drama produced by this channel can be hit and miss – the scene in “The Spanish Princess” where a pregnant Catherine of Aragon rides into battle in full pregnancy army being a particularly egregious example. “Becoming Elizabeth” was therefore a pleasant surprise. So what were the good, bad and intriguing parts of this first episode?
– The plotting, scheming and backstabbing (even within families). The death of one king after nearly 40 years, and the succession of a boy king, brought with it uncertainty and the opportunity for individuals to claw their way to the top of the political power. This episode did a create job of capturing the councillors and courtiers jostling to secure their position around the new King, and seeking to exercise influence over him.
– The characterisation of King Edward VI – neatly capturing a combination of pre-teen petulance and the confidence of a boy who has been trained his whole life to rule.
– The lack of privacy. This episode did a great job of depicting a world where there is a distinct lack of privacy – there is always a servant outside the chamber and the potential for conversations to be overheard.
– The costumes. These were gorgeous and, for once, the veils worn by the women draped and flowed but were not semi-transparent gauze!
– Needing to know the history to follow the story. It is always tricky for historical dramas to walk the line between too much exposition and not providing enough background information. “Becoming Elizabeth” is a set in a world where who people are, and who they are related to, matters but often characters were introduced by one name (“Henry” or “Dudley”) with no explanation of who they are or why they are important. Unfortunately, this makes it feel like a drama for people who are already Tudor fans rather than a series that will attract new fans to the period – and even seasoned fans may not identify all the characters on their first appearance.
– Ageing up of characters. Both Elizabeth and Edward VI looked and sounded older than their actual ages in 1547 (13 and 9 years old respectively). I suspect Elizabeth has been aged up because the series will be tackling her relationship with Thomas Seymour (c. 39 years old in 1547). Edward may have been aged to make his confidence in the role of King more believable to a modern audience. Whilst I understand the decisions, it does affect the way we see these characters if we are viewing them as older.
– The use of religious buildings (abbeys/cathedrals) as locations for palaces and other grand houses. It is a common choice for the makers of dramas set in the 15th and 16th centuries because cathedrals look authentically “old”. However, it is always a bit jarring as the architecture of religious buildings is not the same as palaces. They are also always grey stone whereas palaces would have been filled with wall hangings and paintings.
– Katherine Parr. She is the wife of Henry VIII about whom I know the least. Stereotypically, she is often seen as somewhat saintly – thwarted from marrying her love (Thomas Seymour) and instead burdened with marriage to Henry VIII in his last years when he was hugely overweight and afflicted with superating leg ulcers. She was also very intelligent, wrote several books, was close to her step children, and was nearly arrested for her religious beliefs. So far in “Becoming Elizabeth” we have had references to her position as mother to her step children but she is also a confident, ambitious woman with a harder edge than I have seen in other portrayals. She swears, she is plotting how she can use her stepdaughter, and (this is a Starz show after all) she has sex with Thomas Seymour not long after Henry VIII’s death. I came away from this episode wanting to read more about her!