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Why Channel 5's Anne Boleyn is a Black woman - a look at the real Anne

Jodie Turner-Smith, Mark Stanley and Paapa Essiedu star in the Channel 5 three-parter.

Anne Boleyn
Channel 5
Published: Thursday, 3rd June 2021 at 9:00 pm

Channel 5's psychological thriller Anne Boleyn stars Jodie Turner-Smith as Henry VIII's ill-fated second wife Anne Boleyn, now considered to be one of the most influential queen consorts in history.

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The producers used identity-conscious casting for the series, similar to how theatre productions have long approached casting historical plays.

Mark Stanley, who plays Henry VIII in the Anne Boleyn cast, exclusively told RadioTimes.com, "Jodie has a lot in common with Anne Boleyn. She’s a strong, opinionated, scarily intelligent person. She was also bringing up a young child at the time that we were on set, and she’s quite awe-inspiring really. If you put that all in a box, actually, it’s very similar indeed.

"It was all about this being the right person for the job, rather than what we as a society might perceive as the ‘right look’ for the job. Anne Boleyn was beautiful, witty, vibrant, intelligent and Jodie is all of those things. She brought our Anne to life in a way another actress couldn’t."

The three-part series is described as a “re-imagining” of Anne Boleyn's life, re-examining her final five months and her legacy through a feminist lens.

But who was the real Anne Boleyn, and how did Channel 5 approach casting the famous Tudor figure?

Why is Channel 5’s Anne Boleyn a Black woman?

The real-life Anne Boleyn, whose portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery and whose appearance was documented in contemporary records, was a white woman.

In Channel 5's Anne Boleyn, various key characters are played by Black actors, including Anne Boleyn (played by Jodie Turner-Smith) and her brother George Boleyn (Paapa Essiedu), who were both eventually executed on the orders of Henry VIII.

Thalissa Teixeira, who stars as Henry VIII's mistress Madge Shelton, recently told RadioTimes.com that the inclusion of Black actors in Anne Boleyn was not an example of colour-blind casting, but instead an example of being "identity-conscious".

Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn Channel 5

According to Channel 5, identity-conscious casting "makes space for and embraces how actors and artists can bring their whole identities or even parts of their identities to a character. Actors from minority backgrounds that are not often represented on screen can therefore claim parts that correspond to their personal identities, without being limited by them".

Not bound by the "casting constraints historically adopted within period dramas," this approach gave the Anne Boleyn producers the freedom to tell Anne Boleyn’s story in a way that will "resonate broadly with a contemporary audience".

Speaking to RadioTimes.com, Teixeira stressed that casting Queen & Slim star Jodie Turner-Smith as the ill-fated Anne Boleyn helps highlight how the real-life queen was “othered”.

"I think the casting [of Jodie Turner-Smith] has something to say for that as well. We’re talking about the idea that… she was different from the rest of the people in the court – this kind of othering of her," she said.

She continued, "We’re not consciously doing a historically accurate show, of course, because otherwise the casting would look completely different...We’re embracing the fact that we are obsessed with these stories still - we’re still telling stories about Anne Boleyn. And it’s everyone’s history. It was a British history, and Britain looks completely differently now."

Who was the real Anne Boleyn?

Anne Boleyn was an English noblewoman who was Queen of England from 1533 to 1536, the second wife of King Henry VIII and the mother of future Queen Elizabeth I. Anne was beheaded in 1536, charged with treason, adultery, and incest.

She was considered intelligent, politically astute, charming ,and fashionable, having spent time at the French court, and was one of the ladies-in-waiting to Henry's first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

In order to marry Anne Boleyn, Henry broke away from Rome and the Catholic Church and seized control of the Church of England, which ultimately led to the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Anne would give birth to one daughter, but she had miscarriages and did not produce the male heir her husband sought. Ultimately she would be replaced by one of her own ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, who would marry Henry just 11 days after Anne's execution.

Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn Channel 5

Channel 5 describe their version of the character Anne Boleyn as "openly ambitious: she wants to a be a great Queen, making waves in her own lifetime, and leaving a legacy in her child, who will one day rule in her place. She’s ballsy and brave – she doesn’t just roll over and accept her fate – Anne fights tooth and nail for what she believes to be hers.

"She is also endearingly flawed and human, her passion and intelligence impeded by her jealousy and quick temper. She’s smarter than any of the men - quick witted with a vision and hunger to be a meaningful part of shaping her country’s future."

The description continues, "Ultimately, Anne is a woman born out of her time, whose ferocious intellect and unbridled ambition make her a threat to the status quo and to the men that surround her."

Want to know more about the show? Check out the our location guide to find out where Anne Boleyn was filmed, or for an overview of the series, you can read our Anne Boleyn review.

Article originally published 1st June, 2021.

Anne Boleyn premiered on Channel 5 from Tuesday 1st June at 9pm with new episodes following daily.

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