2004-03-18

Intolerance: New TV controversy on Mary Queen of Scots

'Mary is seen as a sort of soppy woman who liked dancing and sex, and who was involved in her husband's murder. But that's not her story; that's her enemies''. 'In my end is my beginning .'
Never was a truer word spoken, or stitched, to be more accurate, for during her 18-year imprisonment before she went to the block, the ill-starred queen Mary Stuart enjoyed a pun, both in her needlework and in her often accomplished poetry. Mary, Queen of Scots, as they say, got her head chopped off - and an agonisingly botched execution job it was too - but more than four centuries later, she still refuses to lie down and die. Tragic martyr or warrior queen, saint or whore, begetter of folklore, romantic novels and movies ... not to mention patron saint of the Scottish heritage industry, Mary, Queen of Scots takes to the small screen again, a glamorous, distraught figure amid a squalid and violent 16th-century Scotland, on Sunday night, in 'Gunpowder, Treason and Plot'. Jimmy Mcgovern Jimmy Mcgovern The two-part epic is the seasoned TV playwright Jimmy Mcgovern's examination of not only the story of Mary, but of her son, James the Sixth of Scotland and First of England, who brought the two kingdoms together in 1603. So the hoary old controversies are invoked once again, like a possession of disputatious ghosts: was Mary implicated in the murder of her husband and general cad Lord Darnley; did the Earl of Bothwell rape her or did she fall in love with him? Gillies Mackinnon Gillies Mackinnon Directed by the Scottish film-maker Gillies Mackinnon, 'Gunpowder, Treason and Plot' also features a volatile portrayal of 'Jamie the Saxt' by Robert Carlyle, for whom Mcgovern has written some powerful roles in he past. And in an age when we are haunted by the spectre of international terrorism, the 'Gunpowder Plot of 1604' is held up as having resonances that run deeper and darker than 'penny for the Guy', as the conspirators agonise over the morality of what we now call collateral damage. Robert Carlyle Robert Carlyle Historians may roll their eyes at the portrayal of the 'Wisest fool in Christendom' as a rampantly bisexual conniver, obsessed with power and his twisted appearance, and forcing sexual favours in return for the cessation of the persecution of Roman Christians, and party to the execution of his mother as a justifiable route to a peaceful union between Scotland and England. But it is James's hapless mother, Mary who continues to fuel countless novels, plays, operas, movies and, indeed, TV dramas. Initially, McGovern was already involved in scripting a drama about Mary when the BBC approached him with a view to doing something about the 'Gunpowder Plot'.
'We decided to combine the two and show them both as TV films,' says McGovern. 'The historians will probably put the boot in, of course,' he acknowledges, with some prescience. 'They hate historical drama. It simplifies things, you see. 'Characters in a drama have to have clear motives. The dramatist chooses those motives as fairly and honestly as he can, and then he sticks to them. Unlike the historian, he cannot hedge his bets. Nor does he have the luxury of the footnote or the appendix.'
Cl�mence Po�sy Cl�mence Po�sy Blissfully unencumbered by footnotes, then, McGovern makes his first foray into non-20th-century historical drama, with 'Mary', played by the 21-year-old French actress Cl�mence Po�sy, arriving in a suitably grubby and haar-bound Leith, to be greeted by an unprepossessing bunch of dour Scots (a far cry from the ridiculously strutting and anachronistic pipe band which serenades Katharine Hepburn and Fredric March in the hopelessly romanticised 1936 'Mary of Scotland'). She finds herself in a Scottish court seething with hate, jealousy and duplicity, through which strides a grim and hungry-looking James Hepburn, 'Earl of Bothwell' (Kevin McKidd). The plot develops apace, with some gloriously cavalier dialogue - the foppish "Darnley" (Paul Nicholls) mocks a raging 'Bothwell' as 'a Scotsman in need of his oats', while 'Mary' dismisses the much put-upon- 'Bothwell' to go off and 'toss his caber'. Speech anachronisms aside, though, what historians may take issue with is the drama's presumption that Mary was deeply implicated in the murder of her unpleasant husband Darnley; also that she willingly went off and married Bothwell, who is often depicted as raping her and forcing her to marry him. So, does the historian's heart sink automatically when he or she hears of yet another impending dramatisation? Prof.John Guy of Clare College, Cambridge, author of a recent, acclaimed biography of Mary Queen of Scots, tends to think so -
'Although it is drama, not history and I'm not against that. It's just that it does seem a shame because the facts are so much more interesting that the fiction. But it's not really for me to criticise, because I'm not a TV or drama critic and I haven't seen it yet. '
Guy's recent biography on Mary, 'My Heart Is My Own', champions her as 'the greatest queen that England never had'. He believes she was traduced by the English, including faking the so-called 'Casket letters' which appeared to implicate her in Darnley's murder, and he believes that bad reputation has stuck with her historically.
'I think after the union of parliaments in 1707, somehow the Scots didn't re-investigate Mary possibly because of the Presbyterian tradition and she was a Catholic [Roman Christian]. And today, I think the Scottish nationalists tend to be republican, so they don't really have an interest in rehabilitating a queen. 'So the traducement continues, with Mary, seen as a sort of soppy woman who liked dancing and sex, was having an affair with Bothwell while Darnley was still alive and was involved in her husband's murder. 'But that's not her story; that's her enemies' story, that has come down to us through history because the English found it terribly convenient. We wouldn't really have heard of the Casket letters if William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth 1E's first minister, hadn't published them, in phoney Scots -- although I suspect the Scottish tourism industry has done very well out of Mary, the way she is.'
Remember, continues Guy, that we're talking about a woman who may have loved music and dancing, but she was no shrinking violet:
'She puts on a steel helmet, a gun in her holster, and rides at the head of her army, to chase the rebels out of Scotland in the Chaseabout Raid of 1565. 'She's incredibly powerful, but basically they murder her husband and she's brought down because she makes Bothwell her protector. That was sensible; he was the one noble who had been consistently loyal to the monarchy and could raise an army, he was financially independent because as hereditary Lord Admiral, he had the rights to all wrecks on the coast of Scotland, but the price of his protection was marriage to him, and that's where it all went wrong.'
Robin Bell, a poet who translated and compiled Mary's poetry in 'Bittersweet Within My Heart', believes we can expect countless more books, films and lectures about her,
'Because she is a very glamorous figure, but also a very complex one. All I would hope is that any drama or book takes the trouble to make her multi-faceted, because I think she deserves that respect. 'She was educated at Fontainebleau, arguably the most sophisticated European court of its day, and was brought up speaking many languages, as any young princess was - well, you never knew what dynastic marriage you were going to be stuck with. 'I find her so interesting because there are so many paradoxes about her. On the one hand she was committed to the faith in which she was brought up, a very European 'Catholicism', but on the other hand she was not averse to other people expressing their faith in their own way. 'What she didn't like was violence and intolerance, yet so often she has been turned into a one-dimensional shortbread tin figure, or the combined saint and whore. In fact she was a far more complex figure than that. 'The one thing for which you can condemn her without fear of contradiction was that she had rotten taste in men, but to have lost three husbands and three kingdoms by the age of 24 is not only bad judgment, but bad luck as well.'
Mary's best poems, Bell argues, rank inclusion in any broad-spectrum anthology of Scottish poetry and, he adds, the most interesting way of looking at Mary, is as 'a European dynastic figure whose culture at court linked Scotland with mainland Europe in a way that England was not linked at that time.' One historian who is rather less than enthusiastic about Mary is Dr.Jenny Wormald of St.Hilda's College, Oxford, who regards her as
'A grade-A bore. In the 17th century nobody really much cared about her. But once stuff started to be published, particularly the Casket letters, here was a drama: sex, murder, you name it '
While Wormald has yet to see the forthcoming drama, she expresses some strong reservations about what she has heard about its portrayal of James-6S1E :
'I think James was bisexual. He had kids but he also had male favourites. There wasn't much comment on this at the time, although there would be political comment, because these favourites had terrific influence.'
She dismisses, however, any suggestion that James-6S1E, may have forced sexual favours in return for halting the persecution of 'Roman Christians', and she regards any suggestion that he was party to his mother's execution as 'utter balls, frankly'.
'I mean, James had no reason to like his mother. He had no memory of her and she was a scandal and an embarrassment, but he did all the right things about protesting at her execution, before and after.'
But isn't this drama, not history? In retort, Wormald protests at what one might call "Braveheart" syndrome.
'Then why don't they make a drama about two people called 'Mary' and 'James', not attached to historical characters, which will make people think that this is real history?'
For his part, Gub Neal, producer of 'Gunpowder, Treason and Plot' is cheerfully unrepentant:
'I firmly believe that good stories are good stories, whether they are based on historical fact or essentially embellishments of authenticated history. Drama is about interpretation; if you want to watch a show about the so-called facts of history, watch a documentary. 'At the end of the day, I think using history for drama, particularly television drama, is about exploring universal truths and whether that is about historical accuracy or taking a sequence of events and knitting a parable or story into it is irrelevant. 'I think Bobby Carlyle does really well as 'James', who was a very panicky, very neurotic and very intelligent man, but also a man who was fuelled by a lot of problems: he drank a lot, he was essentially orphaned when he was very young, psychologically he was a bit of a mess, really.'
He and McGovern draw parallels between the 'Gunpowder Plot' and today's threat of international terrorism:
'I think there is a universal comment there, that men who perpetrate violence will ultimately be undone by it.'
Certainly Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators meet a very sticky end. It will be interesting to see whether, following 'Gunpowder, Treason and Plot', irate historians or outraged devotees of Mary call for further heads to roll. "Gunpowder, Treason and Plot" starts on BBC2 2004-03-14 Su 21:00. By Jim Gilchrist, The Scotsman, 2004-03-11 Th Links: Available on DVD at Amazon 'Mary, Queen of Scots: Pride, Passion and a Kingdom Lost' Jenny Wormald

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