White House Farm star Mark Stanley takes on the role of one of England's most infamous monarchs, King Henry VIII, in the historical miniseries Anne Boleyn.
Set during the final five months of the queen's life, it begins at a time when the couple are blissfully happy and anticipating the arrival of a son — but after their child is stillborn, Henry grows cold and distant, and Anne (Jodie Turner-Smith) fears that he may be looking to replace her with a new wife...
"It's my job to find the empathy, and it's [the viewer's] job to draw a conclusion," says Mark. "What sort of bloke would do that? It's speculative to think, 'at what point did he start making plans?'. Was it after Princess Elizabeth was born, or was it a long time after that? The way I see it is that he was under a lot of pressure — he was ordained by God, he's got to be this titan of a man, and actually what that does for Anne is really just highlight the fragility of her position — how little she meant to the larger order of everything."
The series explores Anne's paranoia (well-founded, as it turned out) that Henry was planning to rid himself of her and marry Jane Seymour instead. Coy and subservient, Jane is the polar opposite of confident, outspoken Anne — and there are many people in the court who believe that a match between Henry and Jane would suit their own agendas far better than having Anne on the throne.
"It sounds horrible, but people would put forward their daughters as assets, as a way of bridging their relationship with the crown," says Mark. "People wanted to be married to the king — whether or not you would have enjoyed it! Jane, I think, offers something very different to Anne. Even though she's knowing — and you get to see that from the camera's point of view — from Henry's point of view it was a little more innocent. Anne would go into court and hold her own, she was well-educated and she would be very witty and he got off on that — but I can see him feeling that he would be slightly diminished by that. What he needs back is his ego, his libido, his ability to reproduce."
The series aims to shed new light onto the life of Anne Boleyn and her relationship with Henry, and the opportunity to explore major historical figures from a different angle was one of the main reasons Mark was drawn to it.
"I really felt like the production company was on the front foot about asking themselves whether or not there was something they could do differently," says Mark. "Not to berate anybody else's work, but I've seen 'museum piece' versions of these kind of stories, adhering to preconceived ideas laid down for us by historians. Turning this from a Henry/Cromwell piece that we've seen before into focusing on Anne Boleyn and what she was actually going through, I thought that was really interesting."
The series was shot on location in Yorkshire, and Mark found that the historical locations really helped him to get into the character of Henry – as did the costumes.
"The costume's all right — but going to the toilet's a bit of a nightmare!" he says. "I don't think we were trying to replicate paintings, so the designers took their own vision with it — and I grew a beard so I didn't have to wear one, which is always nice to do! I've done things before which were period in a studio, and just the simple fact that you're walking into a wooden box which has been painted from the inside, it's very different from being in a stole castle in North Yorkshire, bearing the November/December cold! I think that places your imagination in a much more accessible place."
Anne Boleyn begins on Tuesday June 1 at 9pm on Channel 5.
Steven Perkins is a Staff Writer for TV & Satellite Week, TV Times, What's On TV and whattowatch.com (opens in new tab), who has been writing about TV professionally since 2008. He was previously the TV Editor for Inside Soap before taking up his current role in 2020. He loves everything from gritty dramas to docusoaps about airports and thinks about the Eurovision Song Contest all year round.
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