My Thoughts On ‘Elizabeth I’ – A Documentary by Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb and Dan Jones

FIRST AIRED: May 2017
CHANNEL: Channel 5
PRESENTERS: Dr Suzannah Lipscomb and Dan Jones
WRITERS: Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, Dan Jones and Christopher Holt

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Model Lily Cole stars as Queen Elizabeth I in Channel 5’s Documentary ‘Elizabeth I’

What is ‘Elizabeth I’ about?:
‘Elizabeth I’ is a three-part docudrama that explores the life of Queen Elizabeth I. Now you’re probably thinking: “There are already several documentaries on Elizabeth I! Surely we don’t need another one”? However, please believe me when I tell you that this series has an unique twist, (including the casting of the supermodel Lily Cole of course)!

Dr Suzannah Lipscomb and Dan Jones created this documentary with the desire to demonstrate how Elizabeth’s enemies – and her impressive ability to overpower them – arguably made her one of England’s greatest monarchs. Throughout each episode, viewers are introduced to a new stage in Elizabeth’s life, alongside the numerous and powerful enemies that she encountered along the way.

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Historians and Presenters Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb and Dan Jones

For example, in the first episode viewers are introduced to the young Princess Elizabeth, whose mother Anne Boleyn was executed on false charges when Elizabeth was merely 2 years of age. Consequently, her father King Henry VIII declared Elizabeth illegitimate and unable to inherit the throne. Despite being reinstated into the line of succession many years later, Elizabeth still faced danger and uncertainty at the hands of her own family and other ambitious individuals. These included her stepfather Thomas Seymour, who may have sexually abused the young Princess in order to achieve his own goals; and later Thomas Wyatt, who tried to embroil Elizabeth into his rebellion against her own half-sister, Queen Mary I. Even Queen Mary regarded Elizabeth with suspicion due to her Protestant faith. In 1554 Mary threw Elizabeth into the Tower of London, with the hope that she would be tried for treason. This thankfully came to nothing, and Elizabeth did not have to follow her mother’s footsteps towards the executioner’s block.

The second episode is dominated by two main Catholic threats to Elizabeth’s early years as Queen. Pope Pius V had excommunicated the Protestant Queen of England and encouraged her downfall. Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s Catholic cousin and sister-queen Mary, Queen of Scots, vied for the English throne. Suzannah and Dan reveal just how involved Mary was in several Catholic plots against Elizabeth’s life, and how this was only brought to an end due to the meticulous investigations carried out by William Cecil and Francis Walsingham.

Finally in episode three, Suzannah and Dan delve into the latter years of Elizabeth’s reign. Here they encounter a woman who is facing her most powerful enemy yet: Philip II of Spain and his mighty Spanish Armada. They argue that the defeat of the Spanish Armada was arguably Elizabeth’s greatest achievement. As well as touching upon the troublesome adoration Elizabeth felt towards the spoilt – yet handsome – Earl of Essex, Suzannah and Dan conclude their documentary with the victory of Elizabeth’s most powerful and indestructible enemy: time. By the end of the series, Suzannah and Dan would have hoped to leave their audience stunned and impressed, by Elizabeth’s ability to overcome her enemies and become arguably England’s greatest ruler against all the odds!

What did I love about ‘Elizabeth I’?:
There are many aspects of ‘Elizabeth I’ which I loved, including the presenting style of Suzannah Lipscomb and Dan Jones. Similar to what they did in their previous documentary ‘Henry VIII and his Six Wives’, Suzannah decided to retell Elizabeth’s story, whilst Dan took it upon himself to convey the lives of Elizabeth’s enemies. This is brilliant, as this allows the documentary to focus not solely on Elizabeth, but on many other interesting characters too. This awards their viewers with a greater insight into the Elizabethan world, as well as a clearer understanding of the enemies’ motives.

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Portrait of Princess Elizabeth (c.1546)

What’s more, for any of you who feel like they do not know a lot about Queen Elizabeth I and wish to learn more about her, then I believe that this documentary is the perfect starting point for you! Suzannah and Dan use simple and engaging language throughout. For instance, I found it brilliantly amusing when Dan described Henry VIII as no ‘Tudor Father Of The Year’! They also clearly outline several complex social, military and political events which occurred during Elizabeth’s lifetime. Fortunately neither of them try to overcomplicate matters; nor do they do that frustrating thing where they presume that everyone who is watching the documentary is an Elizabethan expert, and therefore everyone must know instantly what they’re talking about!

I have to say as well that the acting in ‘Elizabeth I’ is incredible! Lily Cole does an astounding job in portraying the young Elizabeth I, by not only looking like her, but also by bringing out some of her feistiness and strong will. Felicity Dean is also phenomenal in portraying the older Elizabeth. Both their portrayals appear genuine and moving at times. Moreover, scenes of Thomas Seymour’s death and the torture of Wyatt proved to be an extremely chilling watch. Katherine Parr’s realisation of Seymour’s betrayal was also for me personally, immensely heart-breaking. The acting throughout the series, succeeded in illustrating the human and emotional aspect of Elizabeth’s story. By allowing the viewers to pity, sympathise and possibly dislike characters who lived 500 years ago, this docudrama prevailed in making the Elizabethan world more relatable to a 21st century audience.

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Lily Cole and Felicity Dean portraying the young and old Elizabeth I

Finally, the documentary brought Elizabeth I to life by filming in several locations which were linked to her tale. This included Westminster Abbey, where she was crowned and eventually laid to rest, and Hoghton Tower in Lancashire. The use of contemporary sources, such as Elizabeth’s letter to Mary Queen of Scots shortly after Lord Darnley’s murder, and the Spanish Armada’s battle plans, helped in further immersing the viewers into the life of this legendary queen.

What was not-so-good about ‘Elizabeth I’?:
Overall, the documentary of Elizabeth I was a success. Unfortunately there were just a few small flaws, which in my opinion stopped it from being awarded 5 stars.

Firstly, in Episode 1 Princess Elizabeth is referred to as ‘Your Majesty’ during various reconstructions of her life. This annoyed me only slightly, because I am pretty certain that she would not have been called this until she became Queen..? Secondly, I understand that Suzannah and Dan had a lot to fit into just three episodes, yet I wished that they would have delved a little more into Elizabeth’s early life. For example, they say nothing about the accession of Lady Jane Grey in 1553, which for a time seemed capable of diminishing Elizabeth’s claim to the throne.

Moreover, I firmly believe that Katherine Parr’s reign as Queen Consort would have had a deep affect on the young Elizabeth. Katherine Parr was a strong, intelligent woman, who successfully ruled the country as Regent whilst Henry VIII went off fighting in France. Although Katherine Parr is presented as a vital mother-figure in Elizabeth’s life, little is mentioned of her impact upon Elizabeth’s ideals of female rule and accomplishment. I consider this to be an important factor to consider, when discussing how Elizabeth found the strength to stand firm against her rivals.

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Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588

I know that I’ve applauded Suzannah and Dan for their amazing presenting skills. However, their inclination to use statements such as “Elizabeth must have been terrified”, grated on me as a historian. I acknowledge that they did this to help captivate their audience, yet they are only presumptions and not historical fact. If they could prove that Elizabeth did indeed feel this emotion during that particular moment in her life, then I’ll take back everything that I’ve said!

Lastly, the documentary’s attempts in building suspense and keeping their audiences’ attention, resulted in every episode claiming that that particular threat was the greatest challenge to Elizabeth’s life. To begin with, Elizabeth’s involvement in Wyatt’s rebellion was described as the toughest period in Elizabeth’s lifetime. Later, the viewers are told that the Babington Plot placed Elizabeth in more danger than ever! You can only imagine what language they used in describing the build up to the Spanish Armada..! In the end, this overly dramatic language lost failed to build suspense for me, and it unfortunately lost its ability to build up tension.

My Overall Thoughts on ‘Elizabeth I”:
In a nutshell, ‘Elizabeth I’ is a fabulous docudrama! The engaging and informative style of the presenters, combined with the superb acting of the cast, opened up the fascinating story of Queen Elizabeth’s life to a much wider audience.

Elizabeth herself is unashamedly celebrated throughout the series, and is very rarely a target for criticism. She is fleshed out as a strong, intelligent and feisty woman, who continually overcame immense obstacles her entire life, in order to become a legendary figure not only in her own lifetime, but in history also.

By the end of the series, I could not help but agree with Suzannah and Dan’s conclusion: that Elizabeth’s survival equalled England’s survival, which ultimately sparked England’s emergence as a truly great nation. Suzannah and Dan brilliantly demonstrated this in their documentary. By taking each individual threat that Elizabeth confronted – and explaining just how she overcome the mammoth task of defeating them – people understand how Elizabeth I became a truly great queen.

 

Where can you watch ‘Elizabeth I’?:
My 5 Box Sets (UK viewers) : https://www.my5.tv/elizabeth-i/season-1

Recommended Reading:
Elizabeth, The Queen’ by Alison Weir – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Elizabeth-Queen-Alison-Weir/dp/0099524252/ref=sr_1_9?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1507806143&sr=1-9&keywords=elizabeth+i

‘Elizabeth: Apprenticeship’ by Dr. David Starkey – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Elizabeth-Apprenticeship-Dr-David-Starkey/dp/0099286572/ref=pd_sim_14_6?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=KX14VSJTM03EH0YYGYXS

‘Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens’ by Jane Dunn – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Elizabeth-Mary-Cousins-Rivals-Queens/dp/000653192X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1507806222&sr=1-1&keywords=elizabeth+and+mary

Discover the Historians:
Suzannah Lipscomb – http://suzannahlipscomb.com

Dan Jones – http://www.georginacapel.com/our-author/dan-jones/

 

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