TV Review: Becoming Elizabeth (Season 1)

A cast full of my faves makes Becoming Elizabeth highly watchable – shame it’s been cancelled!

“You can’t change the game we find ourselves in”

Tudor drama never gets old for TV bosses but it’s a shame that Anya Reiss’ Becoming Elizabeth didn’t make it past its first series, not least because Romola Garai’s Mary Tudor was one of its absolute highlights. In truth, the title felt like a bit of a misnomer as the subject here really was the wider Tudor court in the immediate aftermath of the death of Henry VIII and the contrasting fortunes of his three surviving children.

Between them, Mary, Elizabeth and Edward had three different mothers and so inevitably, three different spheres of influence built up around them, courtiers competing to stay in favour depending on how the power dynamics of the day are going. The show makes great hay out of this, showing the male-dominated royal council as the real seat of power, particularly given Edward still being a kid, but also showing how the women of the court were also able, at times, to exert their own influence.

And what women! Jessica Raine’s Catherine Parr relishing the sexual freedom of becoming a widow; Romola Garai’s Mary Tudor, a devout Catholic horrified by the spread of Protestantism; Alexandra Gilbreath’s compassionate Kat Ashley; all circling Alicia von Rittberg’s Elizabeth Tudor, a nervous teenager slowly coming into the understanding of her position. I’m not sure von Rittberg was the best casting, a little too old and not quite impactful enough in her acting choices to stand up to the quality around her.

For she also has to do battle with the men of the piece. John Heffernan gets a fantastic part in Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset and self-nominated Lord Protector holds onto power with an iron grip; Tom Cullen impresses as his brother Thomas Seymour, whose rampant horniness sees him take stepmother and stepdaughter in quick succession; Jamie Parker is excellent too as John Dudley, possibly the closest to a decent man in this grouping, especially compared to the brilliant snivelling of Leo Bill’s Henry Grey, an ineffectual courtier but father to Bella Ramsey’s Jane Grey (someone else cheated of what would have come in a second series).

The dynastic struggles are familiar but given a fresh feel here, particularly since Edward VI’s reign perhaps isn’t as well known as Elizabeth’s, and the perspective of the sibling relationships feels compellingly drawn throughout. History dictates that we don’t get enough of too many of the female characters – Raine’s Catherine Parr could carry all 10 episodes alone given the chance – but the richness of the ensemble means it powers through the end with style.

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