Anne Boleyn, review: Jodie Turner-Smith is suitably arch in this very silly historical drama

Channel 5’s salacious three-part series, the first to star a black actor as Anne Boleyn, understands that Tudor England was little more than a soapy romp

Adam White
Tuesday 01 June 2021 22:01 BST
First look at Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn

The Tudors have remained in the cultural consciousness not just because they’re endlessly fascinating, but because they were basically the cast of EastEnders. There were flings. Murders. Sneaky power plays. And who were the court jesters if not prototypical Ian Beales? It’s something that Channel 5’s salacious and charmingly inexpensive new costume drama Anne Boleyn is keenly aware of.

Jodie Turner-Smith is our Anne, a 16th-century Real Housewife in a French hood, whom we meet swanning around royal parties and dubbing her sister “a spiteful little bitch”. She’s also desperately in over her head, and vainly attempting to exploit the power that only exists in her mind.

“Your influence lies in your belly and not your brain!” cries a dastardly William Cromwell (Barry Ward), who’s long clocked that Anne’s husband, an intriguingly limp Henry VIII (Mark Stanley), is solely keeping her around to produce a male heir.

The three-part series, a dramatised and tonally heightened take on real historical events, has sparked headlines for its casting of a black actor in the role of Anne – I May Destroy You’s Paapa Essiedu plays her maybe-incestuous brother George – and that does add an interesting layer to the narrative.

Seeing a black woman navigate her way through a largely white world, even if her race is never explicitly acknowledged, only reinforces the cruelty, distrust and casual undermining Anne is subjected to. And, ultimately, how little has changed in the hundreds of years since.

Yet it’s debatable whether the series as a whole truly adds anything new to its heroine’s legacy. By the end of the show’s first episode, we have discovered that Henry’s wives were powerless baby receptacles who were also deeply sad and endlessly cheated on. 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?

Soapy romp: Jodie Turner-Smith and Mark Stanley in ‘Anne Boleyn'
Soapy romp: Jodie Turner-Smith and Mark Stanley in ‘Anne Boleyn' (Channel 5)

Turner-Smith, the show’s star attraction, has a strong handle on the more arch dialogue, as well as Anne’s moments of quiet devastation. She's a good fit, too, for the show’s heightened soapiness. As if to underline that this is a very Channel 5 drama series, the costumes look like relics from an am-dram dressing-up box, and Anne gets to passionately kiss one of her handmaidens and slap her across the face all within the space of a few minutes. Even Peggy Mitchell never went that far.

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