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Make it reign

Juicy historical drama focuses on the women pulling the strings behind the kings

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Gadzooks! There's another royal-titled contender making a claim to the crown.

In this case, however, it isn't an ambitious, vaguely entitled sort named Henry or Edward or Richard or George insisting that he's the rightful heir to the throne of England. Instead, this challenge involves another lavishly appointed costume drama hoping to wrest the title of most-addictive historical TV series from its current holder, Game of Thrones (which, of course, brought an unceremonious end to The Tudors' short reign atop the historical-drama heap).

The latest rebellious upstart is The White Queen, a seductive, occasionally sexy and not necessarily historically accurate 10-part series based on The Cousins' War, a trio of novels by Brit author Philippa Gregory.

The BBC series, which aired this summer on U.S. cable's Starz network, has its Canadian premi®re on Friday, Sept. 6 on Super Channel (check listings for airtime). What makes this drama unique is that it's set in an era (the 15th century, against the backdrop of England's War of the Roses) in which females had virtually no political power and few rights, but the focus of the story is on three relentlessly ambitious women: Elizabeth Woodville (the White Queen); Margaret Beaufort (the Red Queen); and Anne Neville (the Kingmaker's Daughter).

"There's almost nothing written about most of these women... so to find the material about (them) is really a detective job, that you go into the historical documents looking for them," said author Gregory, an executive producer on the TV series, who became fascinated with the women of this period while writing her first novel, The Other Boleyn Girl.

"You can find their husbands. You can find their fathers. You can find their enemies, if they're men. What you can't find is really anything about these women. And I had to trace their way through the records, so sometimes I'm even going, 'Well, we know the baby's born then; nine months before, she must have been with her husband in order to conceive it. Where's the husband? In France. OK. So she's in France.'

"It's been a real journey of discovery... and one of the reasons I'm so pleased and proud of this series is that we're telling women's stories. And that's, I believe, the first time (it's been done) in any in television, actually."

Speaking with TV critics during Starz network's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles, Gregory added that in the context of English royalty during the 1400s, the most important role of a woman married to a king was to produce male children who would be heirs to the throne -- a duty that took this yarn's central character four pregnancies (and three healthy daughters) to achieve.

The White Queen opens in 1464, in the midst of a bloody battle between two sides of the same royal family -- the House of York and the House of Lancaster -- over who is actually the rightful king of England.

As the intricately woven yarn begins, dashing young Edward IV (Max Irons) of the House of York has been crowned king, thanks in large part to the ruthless manipulations of his cousin, Lord Warwick (James Frain), a.k.a. the Kingmaker.

But Warwick's plan to guarantee a long reign for the Yorks and a comfortable future for himself is sidetracked when, during a ride through the countryside with his troops, Edward encounters the beautiful young Lancastrian commoner Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson), with whom he's immediately smitten and to whom he will soon be secretly wed.

Despite her relative youth, Elizabeth is a widow (her husband was killed in battle against the Yorks) and the mother of two young sons. Edward is unconcerned by this, and when she rebuffs his attempts to take her as a mistress, the lovestruck king feels his only remaining option is to propose.

Elizabeth's brother is enraged, telling her that she has been duped by a serial womanizer and that the proposal and secret wedding are a hoax. But after leading his forces to victory in battle, Edward makes a public declaration about his marriage to Elizabeth (much to the chagrin of Warwick, who has spent years trying to negotiate an arranged marriage for his cousin to a French princess) and summons her to court.

And so begins a frenzied period of intrigue, royal double-dealing, fraternal betrayals and, most importantly, feminine scheming and the stabbing of assorted regal backs.

Sticklers for historical accuracy will surely find The White Queen to be wanting on several fronts -- most notably, its depiction of 15th-century England as populated almost exclusively by winsome, attractive and consistently clean-bathed people with lovely hair and straight, white, perfect teeth.

But this is television drama, after all, and viewers have always favoured style and sizzle over squalour and stench. On the "sizzle" front, The White Queen certainly presents its characters -- particularly Edward and Elizabeth -- as a rather randy royal bunch, serving up several scenes in each episode of unclothed characters in a variety of carnal castle-bed clinches.

But if you can look beyond these minor distractions and focus on the story at hand, you might discover that The White Queen is a satisfyingly compelling, well-appointed tale, filled with intriguing characters brought to life by actors at the top of their game.

It isn't likely to topple Game of Thrones from the lofty perch it occupies in pop-culture consciousness, but The White Queen certainly earns its place of honour in TV's historical-drama lineage. Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 31, 2013 G1

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