Anne Boleyn: Channel 5 drama takes a fresh look at the rise and fall of a tragic queen

A well-known story from royal history gets an exciting update and takes a very different look at the final months in the life of Henry VIII's second wife.

By Katie Archer Published: 19 May 2021 - 9.28pm
Drama Period Drama

Channel 5

Channel 5 Anne Boleyn

Think you know the Tudors inside-out? Then it’s time to think again, with Channel 5’s bold new drama series Anne Boleyn.

It reframes the story of Henry VIII’s second wife from the tale of a scheming temptress into a psychological thriller about a politically astute woman who is murdered by her husband.

With a brilliant cast and a fresh take on the events of the last months of Anne’s life, this is an historical drama not to be missed.

What is Anne Boleyn about?

If the idea of stuffy period drama and yet another look at Henry VIII’s wives has you reaching for the remote, you might want to put it back down for Channel 5’s new series.

Anne Boleyn of course centres on the Tudor queen who was Henry VIII’s second wife and the first to be beheaded, but it’s her story not as you think you know it.

The series description begins: “For 500 years we have been drip-fed a story about Anne Boleyn: the cold-hearted scheming seductress who bewitched Henry VIII into marrying her before sleeping with his best friend. Oh, and her own brother. But because history is written by the victors, we have never heard her side of the story.”

So now’s the time to discover what happened from Anne’s point of view in a drama that aims to get inside her head and tell the tale of a Tudor queen who resonates with a modern audience.

Anne was the sharpest person in the room, creative about finding ways to be powerful, and forward-thinking in expecting that her daughter could become monarch.

The series paints her true crime as being too ambitious in a patriarchal world which was intent on finding ways to keep her in her place.

Historian Dan Jones worked with the programme’s makers on the facts behind the drama and said: “What’s cool is that right now we have scholars - like Miranda Kaufmann and Olivette Otele, for example - who are mining the Tudor world for stories that have been overlooked in the past.

“I felt that if we could tap the spirit and energy of that approach to the 16th century and apply it to a Tudor thriller like the downfall of Anne Boleyn, then we’d have something genuinely fresh, exciting and challenging.”

The series begins five months before her execution, when the queen is on top of the world and believes she is expecting a son who will be next in line to the throne. It then tracks her swift downfall before her execution.

Who stars in Anne Boleyn?

Anne Boleyn – Jodie Turner-Smith

Anne Boleyn Jodie Turner-Smith Channel 5

At the centre of the cast is Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn herself.

Best known for her role in Queen & Slim, Turner-Smith was partly picked for the role because of a Vogue article she’d written about having a homebirth during the coronavirus pandemic which persuaded the series creators that she would be convincing as Anne.

“I think if you stay away from period dramas because they feel kind of stuffy, then this is the historical drama for you," she said.

“There's so much about Anne’s legend that people believe – whether it's that she was a witch, she had six fingers, or that she had an incestuous relationship with her brother – we've seen all these things portrayed in popular culture. I think that for the most part we've seen her story told through the lens of the other people around her.

“But this time we are trying to tell a more human story about this figure who really was just a woman trying to survive in her time and in many ways, as a woman before her time.

“Telling this story through the lens of a psychological thriller has both added depth to that human story and refreshed this well-known woman’s historical tale for a modern audience.

“So much about what Anne’s body could do and what her body was capable of was more important than who she was or how she felt. In many ways it’s very similar to the experiences that women still have in the world.”

Henry VIII – Mark Stanley

Anne Boleyn Mark Stanley Channel 5

Starring opposite Turner-Smith as King Henry VIII is Mark Stanley (White House Farm).

“Usually with these adaptations, it’s Henry or Cromwell taking the lead, but there’s a thriller type feel to the whole piece as it’s from Anne Boleyn’s perspective," he said.

"You get a sense of the fickle nature of the position she was put in at the time and the strength that she showed through that adversity.”

Talking about the series' casting, he said: “Some people will sit down to watch this and see Jodie playing Anne Boleyn and be able to see themselves on screen as a queen and that’s exciting.”

George Boleyn – Paapa Essiedu

Anne Boleyn Paapa Essiedu Channel 5

Paapa Essiedu (I May Destroy You) plays Anne’s brother George Boleyn.

“Traditionally and historically, period dramas have looked at history through a very limited lens, and one that generally doesn’t involve me or people that look like me," he said.

“I’m excited for people to see the English monarchy explored in this way. This is a story we have seen in so many different forms such as Wolf Hall and The Other Boleyn Girl, but all of those takes on this period of time have had a homogeny to them. I’m excited to see this story told with a fearlessness and a sense of ownership in the way we want to tell it.”

Jane Seymour – Lola Petticrew

Anne Boleyn Lola Petticrew Channel 5

Also appearing in the cast is Lola Petticrew (Three Families, Dating Amber) as Jane Seymour, the woman who Henry VIII wanted to get rid of Anne for and who would become his third wife.

Petticrew said: “I think that so often we see ourselves used as a tool or a device on screen for a man’s story, and what’s happening between these two women is so much more interesting.

"These are two women that have to clamber and fight for their place at the table. I think in a way there’s a mutual respect between the two women – they have to do what they have to do in order to survive.”

Thomas Cromwell – Barry Ward

Anne Boleyn Barry Ward Channel 5

Another key character in Anne’s story is Thomas Cromwell (played by Barry Ward, White Lines) who was Henry’s trusted advisor and the architect of many of his reformation plans and legal schemes.

Cromwell was the main focus of Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novel and TV adaptation Wolf Hall, but Ward said his portrayal is very different.

“I think this Cromwell is certainly very different to Hilary Mantel’s in Wolf Hall, I think he’s far less sympathetic and of course we don’t delve into his back story and upbringing… everyone will have their own perception of him I’m sure," he promised.

"I find him extraordinary and extraordinarily fascinating. Do I like him? I can’t say…I think he did some amazing things, but he also did some quite horrific things, we can only ever guess at his motivations.”

When is Anne Boleyn on TV?

The three-part series is due to begin on Tuesday, June 1 at 9pm on Channel 5.

Anne Boleyn begins on Tuesday, June 1 at 9pm on Channel 5

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