Even a Powerful Queen First Must Survive Being a Teenager
“Becoming Elizabeth,” a new show on Starz, depicts Queen Elizabeth I’s early years, which are rarely seen onscreen, as a claustrophobic family drama.
June 10, 2022
LONDON — At the start of “Becoming Elizabeth,” a new Starz series about the little-depicted teenage years of Queen Elizabeth I of England, a carriage clatters through a rain-drenched dawn, led by riders on horseback bearing flaming torches. It is January 1547, and the carriage is carrying the body of King Henry VIII; immediately after, we see his legitimate children, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, roused from bed and ushered through dark corridors.
“Why did you bring us all here? What do you mean to do to us?” asks a frightened Mary, the elder of three. “Is this it?” whispers the 14-year-old Elizabeth.
The darkness, chaos and fear of these first minutes sets the tone for the eight-part “Becoming Elizabeth,” written by the British playwright Anya Reiss as an epic family drama — more “Succession” than “The White Queen.” Henry’s death is the catalyst for a mighty struggle for power amid the nobles, who vie to run the country in the name of Edward, 9, the new king, and to utilize Henry’s children as pawns in their game of survival.
Elizabeth was eventually on the throne and ruled for 45 years. She is known for “the great things she did, the terrible things she did,” said Justin Chadwick, who directed the first three episodes of the show. “But at this stage, she was still raw — a young, brilliant woman, struggling with everything you struggle with at 14, thrown into these treacherous waters.” Chadwick’s visceral, claustrophobic visual style, created by filming with shoulder-held cameras that closely follow the actors, rarely uses the wide large-scale views more typical in period drama.
When Reiss, who had a play she wrote at 17 staged in the West End in 2010, was approached about the “Becoming Elizabeth” project by the producer George Ormond, she told him flatly that she did not watch period dramas. “He said, ‘then write a drama that you would watch,’” Reiss recalled in a recent video interview. Then, she said, Ormond told her about the period he wanted to dramatize. “I found the story completely amazing,” Reiss said. “I was going, ‘then what happened? No! Really?’ I realized these events made her who she was later.”
Even though the series focuses on Elizabeth as a teenager (Alicia von Rittberg, a German actress), it also closely follows her siblings, the adults in her life and the shifting allegiances between various power brokers. And although those holding the power are men, female negotiations with power — how to get it, how to use it, how to keep it — are in the foreground.
Chief among the women trying to grasp power is Catherine Parr (Jessica Raine), a widow of Henry VIII who is first introduced while having enthusiastic sex with the handsome and charming Thomas Seymour (Tom Cullen), the new king’s uncle. (His sister, Jane Seymour, was Henry’s third wife.)
Here, Catherine is not the dutiful, erudite figure of Tudor lore but instead is confident and politically astute. She is also a mother figure and role model for the teenage Elizabeth, who comes to live with Catherine and her new husband, Seymour, whom Catherine quickly marries after Henry’s death.
Catherine “was a brilliant woman reduced to one word in a rhyme,” said Raine, alluding to the ditty learned by British schoolchildren to remember Henry’s six wives: “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” Catherine’s influence on Elizabeth was enormous, Raine said. “She cared for her, she was instrumental in educating her,” she said, “but it’s murky and mixed up with manipulation and ambition. But that also teaches Elizabeth how to operate in a court of men and maneuver in that world.”
Catherine expects to become regent — and the effective ruler of the country — because Edward (Oliver Zetterström) is just a child, but that role is quickly snatched by Edward Seymour (John Heffernan), Thomas’s brother, who installs himself as de facto ruler. The rivalrous relationship between the Seymour brothers and Thomas’s own power-grabbing machinations further sabotage Catherine’s plans, with a final body blow dealt by his affair with the shockingly young Elizabeth.
The princess “has been in and out of favor during her life, in line for the throne, then called a bastard, and her main goal isn’t about being queen, but about staying alive,” von Rittberg said in a recent video interview. “She is trying to find her place at court, navigating between her brother and her sister, trying not to offend and keep herself safe.” (Mary, played by Romola Garai, is a fervent Catholic, while Edward is a zealous Protestant.)
But Elizabeth is also a teenager, von Rittberg added, rebelling against the decisions made on her behalf, and falling in love with the wrong man.
Ormond, who produced the show along with Reiss, George Faber and Lisa Osborne, said the story had struck him as surprisingly contemporary when he first discovered that this portion of Elizabeth’s life was well-documented, but rarely portrayed. (The 1953 movie “Young Bess” is an exception.)
“Becoming Elizabeth” is “about a teenager who feels she is in control and an adult, but isn’t equipped to be operating in an adult world,” Ormond said. “The sexual politics feel very contemporary and resonant.”
In a video interview, Cullen said that he had tried to make Thomas as three-dimensional as possible, “so that as Elizabeth is charmed and falling for him, the audience is, too.” He added: “It’s a story of a complex, abusive relationship — a powerful, charming man taking advantage of a young woman. You could make the story black and white, but it’s murkier than that. He really loves and listens to women. They respond to him, and he uses that power.”
The show posits the relationship and its fallout as the crucible in which the young Elizabeth’s political instincts are forged. Elizabeth Norton, a historian who makes a similar argument in her book, “The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor,” said in a phone interview that the period of Edward’s six-year reign is largely overlooked in accounts of Elizabeth’s life.
“We look back with hindsight as if she will always become queen,” Norton said. “But at this point in her life, she doesn’t have much chance at the throne,” she said. “It’s likely that Edward will marry and have children, Mary probably will, too.” What she learns during this time, Norton added, is “to dissemble, to understand how dangerous being close to the throne can be and to see through Catherine Parr the dangers of marriage and losing your independence.”
Reiss said she had tried to avoid structuring the show around significant political events.
“I am more interested in people, in showing Elizabeth’s humanity and what not having power, safety and autonomy does to you,” she said. She decided to “treat it as a family drama, a coming-of-age drama, an emotional thriller — everything it was besides a history show.”