Like a virgin

A COSTUME drama about Queen Elizabeth I hardly seems the thing to create controversy, but that is exactly what Paula Milne's new four-part series for BBC1, The Virgin Queen, has managed to provoke.

"Do viewers need an O-level view of history?" wondered Starkey last week. "School teachers are better and more accurate than modern historians," retorted Milne, who left school at 15 and admits she has little historical knowledge herself. "They're far more objective."

A media-generated storm in a teacup, perhaps, and the last thing in the minds of the producers as it went before cameras last summer. It was on set at Pinewood studios at that time that I learned that London had won the right to host the 2112 Olympics. The news was signalled by loud cheers and the anachronistic sight of Queen Elizabeth I - in full Gloriana rigging - doing high fives with William Cecil and Sir Walter Raleigh. It all seemed rather fitting, especially as the scene being filmed had Elizabeth plotting the demise of the Spanish Armada. Over four centuries later, and England had seen off yet another bunch of Johnny Foreigners.

The Virgin Queen is the BBC's new version of the life Elizabeth I and, yes, you would be right in thinking that we'd just recently been treated to a television drama about the Tudor monarch. Channel 4's Elizabeth, starring Helen Mirren, went before the cameras at the same time and, in the resulting scheduling clash, it was the BBC who backed down. Mirren as Elizabeth I is one of those heavyweight pieces of casting you just can't argue with, although The Virgin Queen's Elizabeth is in some respects more eye-catching. She's played by Anne-Marie Duff, best known for her role as 'chav' heroine Fiona in Channel 4's underclass saga, Shameless.

"So often there's a rash of these things, and it's a great shame when it happens," says Duff of the collision of Elizabeth I dramas. Does she feel competitive with Helen Mirren, with whom she acted at London's Haymarket Theatre in 1999 in Collected Stories, a role that earned Duff an Olivier Award nomination? "Not at all," says Duff. "She even sent me some flowers - from one Queen to another."

From Bette Davis to Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love), Elizabeth I is a peachy role for any actress, but more so for one in the early stages of her career, as was Glenda Jackson in 1971, or Cate Blanchett when she made the 1998 film Elizabeth. American movie actress Claire Danes was considered for the part in The Virgin Queen. "The trouble with using a non-English actress like Danes is that the accent is always in the front of your mind," says The Virgin Queen's producer Paul Rutman. "Anne-Marie had the right mixture of experience and hunger at this stage of her career. And it's written in an edgy, contemporary vein by Paula Milne, who's never written a costume drama before, so we wanted someone who has a freshness...someone who hasn't spent her life doing historical drama."

Duff kept her freshness intact by deliberately not watching any of her predecessors. "I'd seen Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth when that came out, but that was long enough ago not to leave a residue," she says. "There's nothing to be gained from watching somebody else's interpretation." Not even Miranda Richardson's memorably petulant 'Queenie' in the Blackadder series? "Well, everybody would try to get me to do Queenie on set, but, frankly, it was a worry that once I started I might never be able to shake it off."

In the new four-part drama, Duff's Elizabeth ages from her twenties to her sixties, and by the end Duff was spending nearly five hours a day in make-up. "It's very different filming a costume drama to filming Shameless," she says. "You can't just say 'change your track suit or get your gold earrings in'. Frankly it was a bit of a number." And then there was the side-saddle. "I'm from west London - I'd never ridden a bloody horse in my life."

Duff was born in Shepherd's Bush in 1970 - her father, a painter and decorator from Donegal, having met her mother, also from Ireland, in the west London melting pot. "I remember telling Ken Loach that and him saying 'what Irish people didn't meet in Shepherd's Bush?'," says Duff, whose family moved out to the racially mixed suburb of Southall when she was still young. There was no tradition of acting in her family, and a somewhat shy "bookworm" of a teenager, Duff thought of going to art school. "But I remember my headmaster saying 'Artists are not actors, Anne-Marie, and actors are not artists.'"

Trying to gain admission to drama school was another matter. "I looked 14 when I was 18 and whenever I auditioned I was blocked," she says. "They'd say I should go away and when I'd lived a little I should come back again.

"Trying to tell them that this was the last chance for a working-class girl to get a grant to go to drama school... they just didn't get it. But the Drama Centre did."

Her contemporaries at Drama Centre in London included Helen McCrory, Paul Bettany, John Simm and Tara Fitzgerald (who plays Duff's lady in waiting in The Virgin Queen). Duff's first proper job was a leading role in Uncle Silas at the National Theatre, and she's been busy ever since, interspersing acclaimed theatre work with movies such as Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters and TV dramas such as Charles II. But it was as that force of nature in velour trackies, Fiona - the big sister and surrogate mother to the Gallagher family in Paul Abbott's Shameless - that earned Duff a wider public.

"You never know what work will really put you into people's consciousness," she says. "The interesting thing abut Shameless is that it's such a ridiculous, heightened version of reality and yet so many people will come up to you and say 'that's my life... that's my friend, brother, cousin, dad or whatever'. And you just think 'no, it's not; you'd be dead or in jail if it was'." And on the subject of jails, Duff says she gets a lot of letters from prisoners because of Fiona. "She's the sort of girl who'd wait for you, isn't she?"

The Shameless effect goes even further, she says. "I was doing Days of Wine and Roses at the Donmar. Some people who were massive Shameless fans came to see the play just because of me, and I got talking to them afterwards in the bar. They said they'd never been to the theatre before. That really moved me."

And it was on the set of Shameless that Duff met her boyfriend - or "toy-boy lover" as the red-top tabloids put it, pouncing on the nine-year age-gap - her co-star, James McAvoy. The bruising press intrusion has left her determined to ring-fence her private life. "As an actor, how can you be a chameleon if everybody goes 'Oh look, there's so and so and she goes out with so and so.'? It's just nosiness - it's rude."

McAvoy recently stepped into the Hollywood orbit as the faun Mr Tumnus in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Is Hollywood beckoning for Duff? "Actually I'm off to America very soon because I've been told a million times that I should go over there. I'm just going for a week, meeting lots of people, which I find bizarre.

"Apart from that I haven't got a clue what I'm going to do next. Actually I think it would freak me out knowing what was around the corner all the time, as I really need a few months in between just to breathe again. You can't be a strategist about it, or everybody would have a career like Nicole Kidman."

• The Virgin Queen begins on BBC1 at 9pm, Sunday 22 January.

Queens on the screen

• BETTE DAVIS: The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex

THE iconic actress first played Elizabeth in 1939, when she starred in Warner Brothers' blockbuster, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Adapted from Maxwell Anderson's play Elizabeth the Queen, this was one of the first big-budget films ever to be made about Queen Bess. Davis liked the role so much that she revisited it in 1955 for The Virgin Queen, which was loosely based on Elizabeth's relationship with Sir Walter Raleigh.

• GLENDA JACKSON: Elizabeth R

THIS Liverpudlian lass was another actress to take on the virgin queen's role in the 1971 BBC drama Elizabeth R. She famously shaved her head for this serialised biography of the monarch's life and won great critical acclaim for her dedicated performance.

• MIRANDA RICHARDSON: Blackadder II

RICHARDSON played the capricious queen in the second series of the much-loved BBC sitcom Blackadder in the 1980s. The caricature known as "Queenie" was witty and intelligent, but also given to childish sulks and wheedling. She had a fiery temper and was prone to threaten courtiers with immediate execution if they did not obey her commands.

• DAME JUDI DENCH: Shakespeare In Love

One of the leading lights of British film, Dench played an older, slightly more cantankerous Elizabeth in this 1998 production. Although the film focuses on two younger lovebirds (Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes), Dench made such a impression that she won an Oscar for best supporting actress.

• CATE BLANCHETT: Elizabeth

THE gutsy Australian actress perfected her English accent for this 1998 film about Elizabeth's ascendency to the throne. The role secured her a place at the top of the Hollywood tree and earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.

• DAME HELEN MIRREN: Elizabeth I

THE 60-year-old actress played what was considered one of the biggest roles of her career in 2005. The Channel 4 epic production showed the real Elizabeth - the temper tantrums, the violent executions. Putting Elizabeth's virginal status into question, it also depicted the Queen and the Earl of Leicester (played by Jeremy Irons) as lovers.