Anne Boleyn, Queen of England, is having a bad dream. A fly buzzes around the gauzy white bed curtains, which - combined with the fly - uncomfortably resemble something like a shroud. When she wakes up, we see her Afro-textured hair is bound in a hair wrap.
Anne heads to her husband’s bedchamber, and in turn she wakes the King of England, Henry VIII, by straddling and choking him. He’s aroused, and (it’s implied) performs oral sex on his pregnant queen.
It’s an extraordinary and modern scene, one that you might expect to find in a present-day psychological thriller. And while Bridgerton viewers may be less surprised to see Black actors in a period drama, the use of casting in Anne Boleyn isn’t based on an alternate historical timeline.
Thalissa Teixeira, who stars as Henry VIII's mistress Madge Shelton in the Anne Boleyn cast, recently told RadioTimes.com that the inclusion of actors of colour in Anne Boleyn was not an example of colour-blind casting, but instead an example of being "identity-conscious". The actress stressed that casting Queen & Slim star Jodie Turner-Smith as the ill-fated Anne Boleyn helps highlight how the real-life queen was “othered”. Anne is a woman born out of her time.
Turner-Smith fully immerses herself in the role, highlighting Anne’s flaws (like her mercurial, quick temper) alongside her wit and intelligence. Anne is not afraid of her sexuality, and while this series is a counterpoint to one-dimensional depictions of Anne as a ‘temptress’, undoubtedly the most interesting scenes in this first episode focus on the unexpected ways she wields her sexuality.
That includes the BDSM aspects of Henry and Anne's relationship (in other scenes she dominates, slaps and bites him), and a "talking point” kiss between Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, the latter played by young Irish actress Lola Petticrew (Three Families).
It’s a prolonged, passionate kiss, one that throws the viewer (and Jane) off-balance, to the point where I wondered if the rest of the series would present an alternate history in a similar vein to Quentin Tarantino. But instead it’s revealed to be a power move on Anne’s part, as she breaks away and says, “I can see the appeal”.
Jane is Anne’s opposite, and her rival for Henry’s attention. In a later scene, Anne catches the pair canoodling, Jane perched on Henry’s knee. Anne slaps the girl without breaking eye contact with Henry, and he lets out an aroused sigh.
"I think that they [Anne and Henry] had a deep sexual desire for one another," Mark Stanley (who plays Henry VIII) exclusively told RadioTimes.com. "And I think that was probably made bigger by the fact that, you know - she was such an impressive person. And someone who really could dominate at times, which I think for him was a bit of a rarity. Yeah, so we went down the route of her being really quite powerful in those [sexual] situations."
Some of the visual metaphors and symbolism used in the episode feel a bit too forced, too on-the-nose. For example, Anne is gifted a clock early on (representing how time is running out for her). A horse that’s apparently beheaded after it throws Henry during a joust is an obvious foreshadowing of Anne’s own fate (“I’ve no use for an animal that won’t obey me,” Henry says, glowering), and feels similar to the Princess Diana/stag metaphor used in both The Queen and Netflix biopic The Crown.
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Likewise, some of the dialogue and phrases used pulled me out of the drama (“trot on” and “woman to woman” spring to mind). Early in the episode, Jane wins a card game but says, self-deprecatingly, that she didn’t understand the rules. “Then you really shouldn’t play,” Anne replies.
That aside, the series brilliantly captures the essence of the doomed Anne Boleyn: a woman whose power and intelligence threatened the toxic, patriarchal Tudor court.
Anne Boleyn is set to air at 9pm on the 1st June on Channel 5. Want more show content? Check out our Anne Boleyn location guide, read our fact-checker on how Anne Boleyn died, or else see what else is on with our TV Guide. Visit our Drama hub for all the latest news.