War, plague, murder, sex, violence — The White Princess’ EP Emma Frost and director Jamie Payne have a lot to handle when it comes to adapting Phillipa Gregory’s historical novel for a modern eye. But after having seen the first four episodes, I can confirm they absolutely pull it off. The White Princess is a follow-up to 2013’s The White Queen, and recounts the conclusion of the Wars of the Roses, where the houses of York and Tudor are joined together through Elizabeth (“Lizzie”) of York, played by Jodie Comer, and King Henry VII (Jacob Collins-Levy). The series also delves into the machinations of the young couple’s murderous mothers, the Dowager Queen Elizabeth (Essie Davis) and Margaret Beaufort (Michelle Fairley), as they struggle to regain or keep their power.
On the set of The White Princess in Bristol, England, Frost and Payne sat down with us to talk about the historical miniseries’ unconventional love story, how they dealt with the sexual violence that shows up in Episode 1, as well as what viewers who haven’t read the book can except to see from a story that takes very seriously its female-centric perspective (of note: you do not have to have seen The White Queen to dive into this new miniseries). Be aware there are some light spoilers:
QUESTION: The book is obviously very much from Lizzie’s point of view, but the miniseries, I assume, is going to expand that?
EMMA FROST: It’s very much her story still. But in the same way that The White Queen had pretty much three really strong female characters in play at all times, apart from the first episode, I’ve tried to do the same thing. So we have Elizabeth, Lizzie, Maggie, we have the Duchess of Burgundy, who is referred to in the novel but you don’t actually meet in the novel. Michelle, obviously, as Margaret, who is just wonderful. The whole show is driven by the female point of view. There are almost no scenes with just men. There’s only a scene with only men when it’s absolutely essential to the storytelling. But count them, you’ll probably find less than ten, across the show? Across eight hours? Yeah.
So there’s a female always driving everything, and there are very distinct stories for each of the key women in each episode. They’ve got a proper beginning, middle, and end in every episode, and they are owning the story. What I would say is different — well, not different, but you know, a novel and a TV show of course has to be a very different beast, and the thing about a novel is it’s very internalized, you can have the interior monologue, you can have what Lizzie’s thinking, you can’t have that in the TV show. So in order to make Lizzie properly occupy and drive the story, and the same for the other women, you have to step away from other parts that Philippa has done.
So for example in the book, Elizabeth, her mother, is very present for quite a long time, and actually it almost feels like it’s still Elizabeth’s story. That isn’t what we’re making, we’re making Lizzie’s story. So I had to very consciously reduce Elizabeth in the mix and actually just do a different thing narratively, and separate them much quicker from each other. Elizabeth’s very present, but she’s no longer driving Lizzie’s story. Lizzie’s forced to actually grow up and occupy her own story.
It’s so interesting there are few scenes with men, especially in a historical drama, because history is written by men.
So what’s it like to bring that kind of female perspective to the screen?
FROST: The thing about history is that history’s written by the victors. It’s written by the white men, and anybody that isn’t the person who won and isn’t a white man is excluded from history. What Philippa does brilliantly is she excavates those women who’ve been overlooked by the history books, she brings their stories to the light, she really goes back to the original documents, and she tries to present it as historically true as she can with some poetic license. So Philippa’s done the hard work. She brings all the history to the surface, then I get to go, okay, how do I want to play with these real historical facts and turn them into something which is a living, breathing TV show? So it’s brilliant. I mean, [Jamie Payne] should speak about it. How do you feel? You’re a man. [laughs]
JAMIE PAYNE: I mean, I knew this is a part of history I was fascinated by, but I enjoy it so much more being told through the female perspective. I think, also from a director’s point of view, when you’re working with performance, when you’re working with creating a world that holds these stories, I think the events and the kind of arc that affects these characters, being born out of the female perspective is just dramatically more interesting than the history that’s been told before. I think even though it’s told through the female POV, it universally makes it more interesting and entertaining. It doesn’t belittle history in any way, it doesn’t betray history in any way, it kind of reinforces it, and it makes you question history. And the most important thing, it’s a wonderful, evocative, emotional journey for the audience.