TV preview: The White Queen | The Many Faces Of Dame Helen Mirren | The Greatest Shows On Earth

GAME Of Thrones has got everything. A cast of thousands, the farthest horizons, the sharpest swords, the bloodiest battles, the most potent mead, the bawdiest dialogue, the scariest beasties, the most phallic candles, the lustiest slingshots, the comeliest handmaidens, the wittiest dwarves and – have I forgotten anything? – ah yes, the most philosophical orgies. For almost every other historical drama, following all that is pretty difficult.

Difficult, but maybe not impossible. The third season of Thrones concluded with a wedding scene that will go down in TV infamy. The band were lousy, the ambush of guests horrific. Immediately afterwards, ye olde internet thrummed with shock and on a Guardian site one fan indulged in self-flagellation for allowing himself to watch “murder porn”. The response he got was very Guardian, too. Hadn’t this dolt seen a Shakespeare play or read the Bible or any Scottish history – or didn’t he know about the Wars of the Roses? Which is where The White Queen comes in.

Based on novels by Philippa Gregory, this is a ten-parter about that 30-year local difficulty. We joined the Lancaster-York skirmishes in 1464. The opening shot, as if filmed by a low-flying rook, was of snowy terrain about to turn red with blood – very Thrones. Admittedly we didn’t see the sword come down, far less a head fly off, but then Lady Elizabeth Woodville woke up. She was supposed to be having a nightmare about the day her husband was slain, but it looked more like an erotic dream, as if she was turned on by the flashing blade. This was pure Thrones.

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And then? Well, things got a bit more demure. There was very little which would have scared the horses or disturbed your Sunday night. It’s no accident that a challenging, multi-layered drama like Thrones goes out on Mondays when our brains are supposedly at their most alert. The White Queen, so far anyway, is Middle Ages Lite with just the one, untaxing story: a pretty standard romance involving two admittedly pretty leads who say very un-1464-ish things like “I’m mad for you!”

Rebecca Ferguson is Lady Elizabeth; Max Irons is Edward IV, the new king. She’s a flaxen-haired Lancastrian and he’s Yorkist with dark curls made for a crown, and at first it seemed that she was sleeping with him to retrieve her land – lying back and thinking of her sons’ inheritance – and he was sleeping with her because he could (“That man has been through half the wives of London!”). But he was soon smitten, and I can understand why. It’s Elizabeth’s nose that’s so stunning: carvers of ships’ figureheads would love to stick it high up on the prow. I’m less sure of the attraction of Edward, given that Irons appears to be drawing on old school plays for this role, and especially show-offy ones at that. With the promise of witchcraft and more women coming to the fore, The White Queen may improve, but it’ll have to hurry up.

The Many Faces Of Dame Helen Mirren? I might have preferred The Many Faces Of Dick Emery, but never mind. Great actress, brilliant as The Queen – and did you know she was in my very first X-rated movie? Well, it was either Mirren in Hustler or Susan George in Mandingo, and I can’t believe I’ve forgotten which, though in my defence this was a long time ago, I was a nervous under-ager – and thick smoke obscured the view. Fire broke out in the flea-pit, forcing three skiving schoolboys into bright sunshine and 
the disapproving collective gaze of a busy double-deck bus which just happened to stop outside. Ain’t that always the way?

Hustler didn’t figure among the many faces but then it didn’t have to. The profile gave plenty of time to the early part of Mirren’s career when she was the fearless rebel who liked to shock. Assorted talking heids gushed about her “incredible self-assurance” and how she “wasn’t in the least bit prudish”. If the role demanded, the clothes would come off. It’s Mirren’s bad luck that Game Of Thrones wasn’t around when she was younger and she had to make do with Caligula. That was the serious study of the Roman Empire which transmogrified into a porno, apparently without the thespy cast being aware of it.

The making of Caligula was a “whole other documentary”, said someone. You never know, that might have told us more about Mirren and the choices actors make, for this was a hagiography featuring only archive interviews with its subject and little of real insight, save for her pre-Prime Suspect snobbishness about TV when she said she’d rather be a hairdresser than appear on it, and John Sessions’ observation that she’s “a man girl who doesn’t like hanging with the girls too much”.

I was back to thinking about The White Queen during The Greatest Shows On Earth. Discussing sexual inequality in the 15th century last week, Philippa Gregory said women began with zero status and had to resort to “manipulation, politicking and sexual allure” to gain a modicum of power. Cut to this new travelogue of the nuttiest TV nations, and a Brazilian woman keen for a career in her country’s media was explaining how entry was via the “back door”, that first she’d have to demonstrate her “beauty”, and the chance to show off “intellectual skills” would follow. Interesting choice of phrase, “back door”. Laura Keller was a competitor in Miss Bumbum, a reality contest to find the most fabulous arse in Brazil. When the screen filled with bare backsides it was like a scene from Caligula, which of course I’ve never seen.

The White Queen

BBC1, Sunday, 9pm

The Many Faces Of Dame Helen Mirren

BBC2, Saturday, 9pm

The Greatest Shows On Earth

Channel 4, Monday, 10pm

Twitter: @aidansmith07