A Woman in the Middle
The writer-executive producer of the Starz series The White Princess finds herself juggling history, fiction, and entertainment in putting together the series based on Phillipa Gregory’s book.
Emma Frost is a woman in the middle.
“My job is to just stand in the middle of this triangle, where there’s history at one point, Phillipa’s book, which is already a fiction, because there is so little known about this period – she herself said in the endpiece of The White Princess, ‘This book is a fiction about a mystery, so it’s already two steps away from any recorded fact’ – so it’s Phillipa’s fictional, historical novels, and then I have a 21st century, predominantly female audience,” Frost says.
“And those are the three points that I have to stand in the middle of and somehow triangulate and work out, how to weave those elements together and how to, in the end, create a show that works for that audience that is based on Phillipa’s book and that is as true to history as I feel it should or needs to be, but that also absolutely fulfills the obligation of TV drama, which is to entertain, to transport, but also to inspire. “
In particular, Frost hopes to inspire young women. Frost says, “This is a very female-driven show about the women who’ve been excluded from history from a political standpoint. I want the female audience and the young women to watch this and go, 'Yeah, go girl!'
This is how you fight your corner, about women obtaining power and keeping power and being vulnerable and very female, as well, so my job is quite a complex one on this show I think. But it’s an unusual position where you’ve got those three points to stand in between. “
And, while she tries to stay true to the history as much as it is known, she refuses to be tied to absolute “historical accuracy.”
“People ask me about historical accuracy, and I never quite know how to answer it, because to me the issue of historical accuracy is rather bogus,” Frost notes. “As soon as somebody asks me that, I have to say, whose version of history? Because history is written by the victors. The victors were almost entirely white men of a certain social standing. Women’s stories were not recorded.
"A huge amount of history was written to appease the powers of the time anyway, all filtered through the lens of that particular person or that particular historical period’s prejudices. The history books actually tell us more about the period in which they were written than the period that they purport to represent.
"So, when people say to me “historical accuracy,” I say, OK, where do you want your bar? Because, if I was trying to be as absolutely true to history as I could be, the characters would all be speaking Middle English. You wouldn’t understand a word they say. Early modern English doesn’t even start to arrive until 1470 with the advent of the printing press, but even then early modern English is different from the English we understand now.
"The characters would all have rotten teeth, and the list continues. So, while of course, I want to serve the history, what is just as important to me is saying how do we create a show in this particular moment in the 21st century in this particular political moment that the audience will connect to.
"I’m speculating on what those characters may have felt, and what the machinations of their daily lives might have been. So it’s just as important that we touch that audience so that they come with us and go, 'I am so engaged in this. I can feel those battles and I can connect with those women through history, through 500 years and they’re not sort of under glass or pickled in aspic.'
"It’s a fight that we’re still fighting, and these are people who are still so essentially like us.”
Frost is not only interested in relating the history of the periods in which her shows are set, she also wants to “reappropriate” the history for those too often left out of it, not only women, but also people of color.
“I asked one of our historical advisors when I was writing the script, what would be the situation of people of color in this period? And he said to me, ‘It would be a stark anachronism to have a single person of color in the show.’ And I thought, that’s just too certain an answer for me. I’m going to dig deeper. I don’t believe it. I don’t buy it.
"So, I had my poor beleaguered, long-suffering, script-editing team do a ton of research, and, of course, we found that there were people of color in England throughout history, particularly concentrated around the port towns. We found, in fact, that racism as we understand it didn’t exist in this period and didn’t come in later until the years of slavery. And there were not many people of color at this point, but they were there.
"So, my particular effort and decision on the show was that when we have scenes of the people of London, for example, there are black faces in the crowd, and I very specifically made a decision to have a speaking part to be a person of color, because I wanted to break this whitewashing of history that if you look at any other movie or TV show set in this period, you see all white faces. It’s just lazy, because you only have to scratch the surface.
"There are books there now where people have done the research. It’s just not true to say it was an entirely white world. I think it would be hypocritical of me to be so engaged in wanting to reappropriate history for people who are excluded from it and only apply that to women. “
That said, women’s stories are the ones that most appeal to her. “I think I’m quite promiscuous in my tastes. I’ll jump from thriller to drama to sci-fi. I think I’ve got quite a broad range of tastes. It has to be about more than the sum of its parts. I’m not interested in telling a story just for the sake of telling a story or getting a TV show made just for the sake of it.
"I have to break down what is it about, what are its themes? I think it would be true to say that a common thread running through everything I have written is about identity, and particularly female identity, although not exclusively female identity. I didn’t consciously go to that, but I think I’ve learned in retrospect that that’s what I’m drawn to.
"And, of course, every project has to have female characters. It doesn’t have to be a female protagonist, although most of the things I’ve written do have a female protagonist, in fact I’m about to have a movie with a male protagonist, but it has to have female characters being real, doing interesting stuff and constantly sort of chipping away at their gender preconceptions that I love to tear down.”
That inclusiveness held true throughout this production. “Myself and Jamie Payne who’s our lead director, and Will Hugh-Jones who’s our production designer and Phoebe De Gaye, who’s the costume designer, we made a conscious choice right from the beginning of the show to work incredibly closely together so that the design of the show wasn’t divorced from the script but so that there was a real back and forth between us all.
"So, things they were doing with design would influence the script, and I would actually rewrite parts of the script so that they based on how we were going to approach it from a design and visual perspective.
"And so one of the things that I’m proudest of in the show is what it looks like. I think it just looks phenomenal. And there was so much doing that thinking between how the costumes would appear in front of the different textures of stone or whatever it might be with the set or the location. And I’m absolutely proud of how this world turned out visually, because everybody worked so hard and so closely together.
"And that’s a real triumph for me. This was such a collaborative show, and everybody involved should be able to get credit for it. It was an incredible thing. We had women at every level. Behind the camera as well. So, we had a female director, a female editor, we have women in VFX, boom operators, we had the entire design department aside from Will was female. There was just women at every level.
"So, it’s also a really interesting production from that point of view. “
In the end, though, Frost makes entertainment for everyone. “I think it would be a huge shame if men thought that, because the women are in the driving seat it is not a show for them. And I think the whole point of the gender issues that we’re wrestling with right now is that they are not women’s issues, they are people issues, they are human issues. And the more that men can understand and see things from a female point of view, the better.
Women have long since watched shows with male protagonists and were perfectly able to identify and understand, so men can in reverse. So I would hope that men can also really enjoy it and watch it. And also young women. It is so important to inspire the next generation.
And we’re at a very particular political moment, particularly in America, where women are feeling that their rights are being ripped away, feeling disempowered, and I think it’s incredibly important for people in my position to create work that reaches out for that group and speaks to them and say you’re not on your own. You can fight. These are things you can do. You’re amazing.
"So, just keep being brilliant and stand up for yourself and be who you are. And that’s incredibly important. And I have four nieces, and it matters to me to act as a role model for them.
"So I hope that’s what we’ve done. "