Although the name Anne Boleyn is known across the world, her brother George never quite reached the same level of fame. However, as new historical miniseries Anne Boleyn explores, George — played by Paapa Essiedu — was one of Anne's closest and most trusted confidantes, whose fate ended up tragically intertwined with hers...
"I knew very little about George," says Paapa, who received a Best Actor Bafta nomination for his role in BBC1 and HBO's I May Destroy You. "There aren't actually a huge amount of accounts written about him — there is information, but a lot of it is hearsay, and he was kind of a notorious figure at the time.
"He was very talented, very smart and very successful in the court, so there was a lot of jealousy around him, and lots of slander about him — bits of poetry and letters saying things like 'George took my wife away from me'! I definitely didn't know much about him, but as soon as I started learning about him, I found him a fascinating character with lots of depth and dimensions."
As an experienced ambassador and diplomat, George had a lot of people skills and was very well-connected, which made him very useful for Anne to have around, as he was often privy to information that she did not have.
"It's a brother-and-sisterly relationship in every sense," says Paapa. "They are able to speak truth to each other in a way that can be confrontation, but at the end of the day it is from a deep, deep place of love. A court is a very high stakes and high pressure environment, and it's very difficult to know for sure who you can and can't trust — especially for Anne, who's been very quickly elevated to this position of near-absolute power.
"The one thing Anne and George know for sure is that they can trust each other, and George has got the ability to see what is going on outside of Anne's world, to hear what other people are saying about her. His main priority is to make sure she behaves in a way that protects herself from that."
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However, it was Anne and George's closeness that came to be their undoing, as when Anne faced charges of treason and adultery, she and George were also accused of having an incestuous relationship. Despite a lack of evidence, George was convicted and sentenced to death — with his execution taking place just two days before Anne's.
"I'm fascinated by people, and I try to do as much research as I can before a project," says Paapa. "I was lucky enough to have a few hours with Dan Jones, the historian and executive producer, who'd worked with Eve [Hedderwick Turner, the screenwriter] a lot on the scripts and has kind of an encyclopedic knowledge of the time. It's just fascinating hearing about it from his perspective, being re-educated in a way that felt way more active than being in a classroom in 2005 trying to figure out how I was going to squeeze 700 words for an essay on Henry VIII's various divorces!"
Getting the chemistry right between Anne and George was crucial, and while filming — which took place in various locations around Yorkshire last year — during a pandemic meant that Paapa and co-star Jodie Turner-Smith had to keep a safe distance from each other, that didn't stop them from quickly establishing a sibling-like bond on screen.
"It's as much about going for dinner after rehearsals, or going to the pub and getting a drink, to get to know someone — it's difficult not being able to do that when restrictions are placed on us!" says Paapa. "But we're all having to deal with that. Jodie and I got on really well and we had great natural chemistry. She's such an open-hearted person that you don't really need to spend that much time with her to realise that there's a really kind, caring, intensely intelligent woman in front of you!"
Anne Boleyn begins on Tuesday June 1 at 9pm on Channel 5.
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