Aidan Smith's TV week: Anne Boleyn, Mare of Easttown, Inside No 9

My nine-year-old daughter’s school project this term is Mary Queen of Scots so the recent theft of the rosary beads which the tragic monarch carried to her execution prompted much intrigue.
Jodie Turner-Smith stands trial at Anne BoleynJodie Turner-Smith stands trial at Anne Boleyn
Jodie Turner-Smith stands trial at Anne Boleyn

I’m equally intrigued by the crucifix clasped on the gallows by Anne Boleyn in Channel 5’s biopic and wondering what became of it is not an internet rabbit-hole where I ever thought I’d find myself. Such is the power of the story, though, and the power of Jodie Turner-Smith’s performance, intensely regal to the end.

“Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived,” goes the learning rhyme reducing Henry’s the VIII’s six wives to one word each and no spoiler alert is needed for this drama, penned by Eve Hedderwick Turner with some cheek. After all, you have to be brave or foolish to take on Hilary Mantel and Wolf Hall.

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Turner is interested in the last five months of Anne’s life, when the consort was pregnant and hoping to provide the king with a son and heir after one daughter and two miscarriages. She is, though, her own woman. The “most powerful” in England according to the opening captions. She takes on Thomas Cromwell, challenging him over the king’s plundering of church takings. And in the royal bedroom she’s the dominant one, instigating all the biting and strangling foreplay.

Kate Winslet delivers a career-best performance in Mare of EasttownKate Winslet delivers a career-best performance in Mare of Easttown
Kate Winslet delivers a career-best performance in Mare of Easttown

Turner-Smith plays her as sexy, intelligent, haughty, and, as far as the men of the court are concerned, dangerous. She’s ahead of her time by about 430 years - the first, and possibly last, feminist of the Tudor era. And having a black actress play her isn’t diversity-pandering wokeness as trading brought people of colour to Merrie England.

Merrie? Verily, 1536 was a slog. Yabbering peacocks irritate Anne and she wants them shot. This is the fate of the king’s horse when Henry is thrown in a joust. A pet ferret, spotting the pigs’ heads on platters at a party immediately following the death of wife No 1, Catherine of Aragon, scuttles under the fire grate, preferring to take its chances there.

Anne has no chance, what with trumped-up charges, being denied legal representation and the opportunity to cross-examine the “witnesses” to her alleged adultery. Back then the law was worse than an ass; it was an engine of state, the king’s plaything. Her executioner begs for her forgiveness and she says: “I give it to you with all my heart.”

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Adrian Dunbar hams it up in Inside No 9Adrian Dunbar hams it up in Inside No 9
Adrian Dunbar hams it up in Inside No 9

After hot starts, some recent dramas on Sky Atlantic came seriously undone. That’s a clue that one was The Undoing. I did not believe the whodunnit had suddenly been reinvented and, worse, did not care long before the end who had murdered gorgeous Elena. Meanwhile, not so much whodunnit, more don’t tell me-he-gets-away-with-it, Your Honor had Judge Bryan Cranston perverting the course of justice to a quite ludicrous degree.

Mare of Easttown, though, has kept me enthralled right to the end. It took a big star - Kate Winslet from the biggest movie, Titanic - and plonked her in a tiny place. While The Undoing’s Nicole Kidman got to use Manhattan’s Upper West Side as her high-fashion catwalk, Winslet has to wear three drab coats and seven layers in all (it’s always cold). And while, as a murder mystery, it beats its rival with one hand tied behind its back and a great twist in the finale, Mare of Easttown is really a family saga, a portrait of small-town life (and death) and the story of one woman’s struggle for inner peace.

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There are many moments when you think Mare Sheehan cannot possibly come through this. She doesn’t get along with her live-in mum, her daughter or her ex-husband over the fence who’s getting re-married. The grandson she looks after is going to end up with his druggy mum. One potential love interest has died on her and another is about to get outta Easttown. Even the deacon has been in the frame for the murder of Erin McMenamin and the entire, shivvering community in a forgotten corner of Pennsylvania is going to hell. Plus, she can’t get over the suicide of her son. But then …

Winslet is exceptional. She doesn’t get to glam up - insisting that her “bulgy bit of belly” didn’t end up on the cutting-room floor - or make a big speech. There’s nothing big about what she does in the role, unless you’re talking about her consumption of Rolling Rock beer or the extent of her repertoire of sad, beaten expressions and I think she only smiles three and a half times in the entire series. But this must be the performance of her career and if there’s going to be anything this year that’s more beautifully soulful, more heart-wrenching than Mare of Easttown then I can’t wait to see it.

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What a laugh Adrian Dunbar has in Inside No 9. He plays himself, playing a cop. Not that cop - not Ted Hastings - but a detective in a true crime drama shooting in a dreary caravan park.

The crime in question is a baby-snatch from 20 years before, hardly ready-made gag material, but you know these No 9 boys - they love a macabre challenge. This week’s episode, Hurry Up and Wait, is creepy enough to remind me of those old Alfred Hitchcock Presents until Dunbar bursts into the green room in a truly hideous jacket. The man has just been in Line of Duty, the biggest show around, and yet is as insecure as the next actor. Reece Shearsmith is a bit-parter playing alongside him. Dunbar nicks all of his dialogue, leaving him with just a head-nod, face unseen, and proceeds to ham it up something terrible: “I really think we’ve got the bastard!”



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