Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII, reunited a nation divided by religious strife, faced down the Spanish Armada and, at the end of her 45-year reign, had become one of England's best-loved monarchs.
During her time as queen, poets and playwrights wrote about her, artists painted her, composers dedicated their work to her, all contributing to the legend of Gloriana, the Virgin Queen. Channel 4’s two-part drama Elizabeth I – starring Helen Mirren in the title role – looks beyond the myth at the woman behind the crown.
The drama begins in 1579, when the 46-year-old Elizabeth is 15 years into her Protestant reign. Illuminating the grimy, lustful underbelly behind the opulence and formality of the English court, it tells the intimate story of Britain's most famous queen for the first time. Writing about Elizabeth
Most historians agree that Elizabeth I was one of the most powerful, intelligent and successful rulers of England. The evidence we have of her table talk, poems and speeches shows her also to have been a persuasive and eloquent speaker who, in spite of occasional lapses into Tudor brutality, was also gifted with that rare virtue of supreme rulers – compassion for her fellow creatures. Little wonder that she provides such a rich subject for television drama.
Power and great loves
The script for Elizabeth I focuses on the latter half of the queen’s reign, an area that has not been thoroughly explored on film or television since the Glenda Jackson series. The political machinations of this time play an important part in the story, taking us into the corridors of power and presenting the Elizabethan government machine in all its complexity.
However, the real focus is on Elizabeth herself. In essence, the piece covers the two great loves of her life – the end of Elizabeth’s relationship with the earl of Leicester and her later, tragic infatuation with the charming, courageous and doomed earl of Essex.
Essentially, Elizabeth I is the story of private faces in public places. My fascination in writing the script was the way in which the violent passions of the time informed, created and distorted the great events that every schoolboy thinks he knows but doesn’t.
Authenticity in both history and drama is very often an illusion. Yet it is my hope that, even on the few occasions that strict historical accuracy is jettisoned in favour of something more dramatic, the underlying historical ‘truth’ remains intact. I wanted the audience to feel that they had a ringside seat at the great events of the late 16th century – events that set the pattern for so much of our history and whose bitter religious conflicts have uncomfortable resonances in a world that seems increasingly to be divided, not united, by faith.