Elizabeth I, Channel 4

by | Sep 29, 2005 | All, Reviews

What to say if you liked it

A sumptuous adaptation of the crucial era of the reign of one of Britain’s most famous monarchs.

What to say if you didn’t like it

Exploiting a national myopic obsession with all things, royal, this is a squalid, untruthful soap which pays as much attention to historical detail as Braveheart.

What was good about it?

• An astonishingly good cast peppered with the most appropriate and best character actors in Britain. Helen Mirren is particularly stellar in the title role switching capriciously through the emotions as she drifts from one scene where she is the austere head of state quelling dissent amongst her squabbling advisors, to the hysterical victim of an assassination attempt, to the playful teenager teasing the devoted Earl of Leicester, before switching back to the responsible Queen when she realises to succumb to Leicester’s charms would jeopardise her upcoming politicized courtship of Duke De Anjou.

• Jeremy Irons is splendid, too, as the oily Earl of Leicester who ferociously pursues Elizabeth only to be “spurned” again and again as he has been since they were youthful. He also could go from queasily toadying such as when he proclaimed to his liege: “Do I not live in the sun of your favour?”, to the irascibly jealous as he persistently tried to thwart the marriage of Elizabeth and the Duke De Anjou.

• Ian McDiarmid, as Elizabeth’s chief advisor Lord Burghley, and Patrick Malahide, as spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, were a kind of Waldorf and Statler constantly bickering between themselves, but also filling in crucial exposition on the political climate of the era as well as clashing pleasingly with Elizabeth and Leicester to keep them adhered to their duty to England rather than their own sensual desires.

• The opulent period detail from grand courts to serene boats adds to the atmosphere of 16th century England.

• Some of the most gruesome scenes of death and mutilation this side of a George A Romero zombie flick. Mary Queen of Scots was not only shamed by her execution but her agony was intensified by the axeman taking two blows to sever her head, whilst the culprits of the abortive assassination were hung then, frantically gasping, dumped on a wooden table where their bowels were winched out by coiling them up with

a rolling pin while still alive before being quartered by an executioner armed with a very big axe.

• The subtle allusions to contemporary society. Elizabeth’s political queen seems loosely based on Margaret Thatcher as she verbally whipped her dissenting advisors into meek submission. Not to mention her distrust of all things European.

• And the attempted assassination of Elizabeth by an agent of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots could have been interpreted as a suicide bomber, simply because if he had murdered her he would not have escaped and been executed soon, even if there was an interval of torture at the hands of Walsingham.

• It had moments of humour too. The spiky dialogue which passed to and fro between Elizabeth and Leicester was like the latent derision felt between unhappy couples. Elizabeth kindly remarked on paintings in Leicester’s home before waspishly adding: “Pity so many of them proved to be traitors.” Which amusingly caused the usually suave Leicester to mumble some defensive platitudes.

• And when Elizabeth is trying to guess whom amongst his own entourage the Duke De Anjou is disguised as. She leers at her first two handsome potential suitors before arriving at the next – a simpering oaf – and her face collapses into a near-scowl.

• In what may or may not have been a discreet homage to his former incarnation as a presenter of Play Away, Jeremy Irons entered a brightly coloured room pilfered from the set of some pre-school TV show through the right-hand door.

• The script inventively exposed the absurdity of the causes for the many senseless conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries, which were often provoked by neurotic papal missives and solved by blind political marriages.

What was bad about it?

• Some of the distant backdrops appeared a little false, too static to look realistic as though painted on the horizon by a freakish cloud formation.

• While the performances of the major and supporting cast were flawless, the extras too often seemed to be following strict directions, especially during crowd scenes where they jeered and raged against the traitors to the crown with artificial anger.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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