Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn: colour-blind casting and historical accuracy

From its first announcement last autumn, Channel 5's new three-part drama Anne Boleyn has hit headlines for its colour-blind casting of English actress Jodie Turner-Smith as the Tudor queen. But, say historians including Dan Jones and Miranda Kaufmann, the adaptation is offering a fresh take on an old story and paving the way for new approaches to historical drama...

Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn. (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh courtesy of Channel 5)

Sordid affairs, political backstabbing and brutal murders – there’s a reason the Tudors have occupied our collective conscious for centuries. A new offering from Channel 5 starring Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn is the latest addition to the plethora of dramas about one of history’s most dramatic families – and it began last night.

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The three-part drama, titled Anne Boleyn and produced by historian Dan Jones, takes us through pivotal moments in the Tudor queen’s life, from the stillbirth of her son to her death by execution on 19 May 1536. The Tudor world is, as it might be expected, portrayed as a dark and difficult place to be a woman, with the plot following the final months of Anne’s marriage to Henry VIII as she struggles to conceive a male heir.

Those involved with the film hope that the adaptation examines events more squarely through Anne’s eyes. It aims to put women at the heart of the story, rather than the king.

Too often we’ve seen the story of Anne Boleyn reduced to her through the eyes of Henry

“Too often we’ve seen the story of Anne Boleyn reduced to her through the eyes of Henry,” historian Dan Jones explains. “In the old rhyme, ‘Divorced, Beheaded, Died’ she’s just ‘beheaded’. In that telling, her only function as a character is to come into Henry VIII’s life and then have her head chopped off, before another wife rolls in. I think that’s a profoundly unfair way of looking at this remarkable woman’s story.”

Colour-blind casting

From its first announcement last autumn, the drama has hit headlines for its colour-blind casting of English actress Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn, with criticisms varying from lamentations about “historical accuracy” to outrage about “political correctness”.

Regency romance Bridgerton faced similar reactions in the press and on social media when it was released last year. The drama, starring Regé-Jean Page and Phoebe Dynevor as its love-struck protagonists, cast a number of black actors in roles including King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte.

Beyond the reductive ‘PC gone mad’ line of criticism, one argument stood out: is ignoring race in historical drama white-washing history? As author and broadcaster Emma Dabiri noted on Twitter at the time: “By casting so many black actors as members of the elite [in Bridgerton] it reimagines the period as one characterised by racial equality rather then [sic] by the brutally violent exploitation of black life […] It appears ‘#diverse’ and ‘#inclusive’ representation isn’t always the straightforwardly positive force one might assume.”

Can the same be said for a drama casting a black actress as Anne Boleyn? Comparisons to Bridgerton are perhaps somewhat unfair as, with the exception of Queen Charlotte, the majority of its characters are fictional. Anne Boleyn, on the other hand, focuses on real historical people that many are extremely familiar with.

L to R: Lady Anne Shelton (Amanda Burton) and Anne Boleyn (Jodie Turner-Smith). (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh courtesy of Channel 5)
L to R: Lady Anne Shelton (Amanda Burton) and Anne Boleyn (Jodie Turner-Smith). (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh courtesy of Channel 5)

But historian Dr Miranda Kaufmann feels very positive about the casting, and thinks the majority of people who have an issue should “get over it”.

“We have these iconic figures from history and literature, who people feel possessive about in some way,” she told HistoryExtra. “But you have to remember that it’s not a historical reconstruction: it’s a thriller; it’s a drama; it’s entertainment. As a historian, I think one of our roles is figuring out how to engage people with the past – and this is a fresh take on an old story.”

Kaufmann is the author of Black Tudors: The Untold Story, which explores the lives of Africans in Tudor England through ten key individuals. Does she feel that these are stories that could be explored more in the mainstream media? Yes, she says,  but dramas such as Anne Boleyn may be paving the way for projects including a Black Tudors-inspired drama currently in development with Britbox.

“Generally the people who commission this stuff for TV and film can be conservative about it. I think they need to see something like [Anne Boleyn] getting the hype and the viewing figures,” she explains. “Historically it has been assumed that mainstream audiences don’t want to see a drama with a black lead character. So I’m hoping that this kind of colour-blind casting will have opened some eyes and pushed the envelope a bit.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by historian Dan Jones, who recognises that Anne Boleyn’s story is one that has been written and rewritten many times before.  “That’s testament to what a rich, exciting tale her story is,” he explains. “But what’s cool is that right now we have scholars – like Miranda Kaufmann, 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 cast of Anne Boleyn have also reflected on the lack of access to roles in period dramas for actors of colour. I May Destroy You’s Paapa Essiedu (who plays Anne’s brother, George Boleyn) said in a statement: “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.”

Anne Boleyn (Jodie Turner-Smith) and George Boleyn (Pappa Essiedu). (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh courtesy of Channel 5)
Anne Boleyn (Jodie Turner-Smith) and George Boleyn (Pappa Essiedu).  (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh courtesy of Channel 5)

Turner-Smith’s casting as Anne is not even quite as radical a decision some might believe it to be. In fact, it is the second time that the Tudor queen has been played by a BAME actress on screen; Merle Oberon played Anne in Alexander Korda’s 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII. Oberon, who was of Anglo-Indian descent, claimed to be Australian in order to mask her ethnicity.

According to Anne Boleyn director Lynsey Miller, the decision to cast Turner-Smith was on the basis of finding an actress who best embodied the spirit of Anne. It was “incredibly freeing, not to be bound by physical preconceptions,” she explained in a statement released on behalf of Channel 5.

As a mother, there was just so much about this that resonated with me and made me feel like I could understand this story

For Turner-Smith herself, the freedom of ‘identity conscious’ casting has meant that “there is something that each actor and artist brings to the table, in terms of their individuality, that they then inform these characters with”. The actress, who gave birth to a daughter in April 2020, felt particularly that she could bring this experience into her role. “As a mother, there was just so much about this that resonated with me and made me feel like I could understand this story,” she revealed.

Questions regarding historical accuracy abound whenever a new historical drama is released. While Anne Boleyn might not cover new ground in terms of the story it tells, it is certainly opening up a dialogue about how history can be told and introduced to new generations.

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Anne Boleyn continues tonight on Channel 5 at 9pm