The new Netflix docudrama, “Blood, Sex and Royalty” has provoked somewhat of a Marmite reaction from viewers (for non-British readers, Marmite is a savoury spread made of yeast extract which is famous for provoking a polarising “love it or hate it” reaction). Scroll down for a short video of my reactions as I watched the show.
There is no hiding the fact that this is a “modern” telling of Anne Boleyn’s story. Anne tells her story with frequent comments directed to the camera. She is sent to France to “discover herself” (the 16th century equivalent of a gap year??), the French court is “party central”, later on she asks if she is grounded, and she and George discuss the number of shoes she would have if she was Queen. I think it is important to tell history in different ways in order to reach people who might not watch more traditional documentaries and modernising language makes it is easier to see the similarities between us and our ancestors. Take away the differences in language and you can see that emotions such as love, jealousy, ambition, and hate are universal – suddenly history becomes more relatable. That said, personally I think they take it a little bit too far. It is also inevitable that the extreme modernisation of the language is not going to be popular with other viewers – and, if you hate the sound of the examples at the beginning of this paragraph, you might be better skipping the TV show and just reading the books written by the experts.
Because, whilst the drama element of the show is not going to be everyone’s taste, they do have a good array of experts who have been researching Anne and her family. In fact, for me, the talking heads were the strongest part of the show. Followed by the decision to concentrate on Anne’s intelligence, education and interest in religious debates of the day. Anne in this show is a clever, strong woman with opinions who is not out to tempt or seduce anyone. Unfortunately, her reluctance to get involved in any sexual behaviour at the court is at the expense of the portrayal of Mary Boleyn who I think is poorly treated by the writers.
The costumes and make up have been updated in line with the script. With a few exceptions, the memo was clearly “sexy”. There is heavy makeup, no sign of practical garments like shifts, and a tendency to show the women with headbands and uncovered hair rather than hoods. This was something that the recent Channel 5 Anne Boleyn drama with Jodie Tuner-Smith also did, and I really want to know why costume departments are insisting on running with this look at the moment.
To sum up: if you can get past the language and don’t mind some fourth wall breaking, this is a fun portrayal of Anne interspersed with comments from knowledgeable experts. If you are a hardcore Anne Boleyn fan who is up-to-date with the most recent books about her, it is unlikely that you will learn anything new. And, in my opinion, this is the greatest weakness with the show. There have been so many takes on Anne Boleyn that there is not much new to say about her, it feels like the same events and interpretations are being repackaged because producers know that she will sell. It would be nice if we could turn the attention to some of the other fascinating women of the sixteenth century (and those of other centuries)!