Elizabeth I, the demanding royal role that can make or break an actor

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As the daughter of an Irish family, and educated in a system that shunned the traditional history syllabus, Anne Marie Duff knew virtually nothing about the reign of Elizabeth I.

But next month Duff, fresh from playing Fiona in Shameless, will be confronting an altogether different challenge, starring as the legendarily aloof monarch in a major new BBC drama The Virgin Queen.

She takes on a role with a history that can intimidate the most accomplished of performers. Duff's performance in the BBC1 series, which begins on 22 January, comes just months after Dame Helen Mirren played the monarch in later life for Channel 4. Mirren succeeded a host of acting legends who have taken on the role of Elizabeth I, a figure who has become part of the television canon, according to the Tudor historian John Guy. Past Virgin Queens range from Sarah Bernhardt and Bette Davis to Glenda Jackson and Dame Judi Dench. This is a role that can make, and break, an actress.

Duff, who performs the difficult task of playing Elizabeth from her teens into her seventies in Paula Milne's four-part drama, says: "It's a bit like playing a classical role, Shakespeare or Ibsen. You are aware of the tradition and feel you are part of a cycle.

"You are terrified of being arrogant. I tried my best to be as honest as I could be. To be as human as possible, to try to be a woman who was interesting and intelligent, sexy, but repressed, a lovely conflict of ideas. "

The Virgin Queen opens when Elizabeth is a teenager, her life threatened by her Catholic sister Mary I. Belying her moniker, the youthful queen is shown in sex scenes with her lover Robert Dudley, played by Tom Hardy. In the series, which concludes with her death in her seventies, Elizabeth is shown as a bitter and jealous lover and, finally, as a hideous old woman.

Duff did not watch Dame Helen's portrayal, and said the only actress she had seen play the monarch was Cate Blanchett in Shekhar Kapur's 1998 film, Elizabeth. "I was ignorant about Elizabeth I, because it wasn't terribly fashionable to teach pre-19th-century history in comprehensive schools when I was there and not coming from an English background," Duff says. "She's sort of in the soil of this country; she seems to be in the bones."

The role required Duff to shave her hairline. "As a woman, it's not often you're asked to alter your appearance in such an unconventional way. It was all part of becoming somebody as far away from me as I had ever anticipated becoming."

Professor Guy, who won the Whitbread Biography Award for his account of the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, My Life Is Not My Own, says Elizabeth I was a rich vein for film and television due to the myth that has built up around her. "The myth is of a slim, regal girl with golden hair who threaded her way through danger to glory to run the country," he says.

"When Glenda Jackson played her in Elizabeth R, she became entrenched into the canon of television. There's a big mismatch between this Gloriana myth and the reality. Elizabeth was haughty, vainglorious, proud, a bully and she swore at her counsellors."

Through the ages

Sarah Bernhardt

The first on-screen portrayal of Elizabeth I was in a silent movie, The Loves of Queen Elizabeth, starring French actress Bernhardt as the monarch in love with the Earl of Essex.

Bette Davis

The iconic actress first played Elizabeth in 1939 inThe Private Lives of Elizabeth Essex. She returned to the role in 1955 for The Virgin Queen, about Elizabeth's relationship with Sir Walter Raleigh.

Glenda Jackson

The historian John Guy believes that Good Queen Bess entered the television canon when the actress-turned-MP played her in the 1971 BBC series Elizabeth R.

Dame Judi Dench

The grande dame of British film and theatre played an older, but still mischievous, Elizabeth in the 1998 film Shakespeare In Love, alongside Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes.

Cate Blanchett

The young queen's love affair with Rob-ert Dudley was also the focus of Shekhar Kapur's beautifully shot 1998 film Elizabeth. This highlighted the dangers that facedher at every turn.