Mary Queen of Scots on Film and TV: 1971-2018

In the second part of his two-part blog series on Mary’s presence on the silver screen (the first part can be found here), Mickey Mayhew, author of the Little Book of Mary Queen of Scots, gives a brief summary of portrayals of Mary through the age of colour TV and film, right down to the most recent Hollywood retelling of her story in 2018 starring Saiorse Ronan and Margot Robbie.

‘Elizabeth R’ (TV series; 1971) – with Vivian Pickles as Mary – Mary cameos in episode two and is the focus of episode four, ‘Horrible Conspiracies’, set during the Babington Plot, at Chartley Manor; Hamilton Dyce plays a suitably sadistic Amyas Paulet, and Glenda Jackson won an Emmy playing Elizabeth I. The whole thing may appear stagey to a modern audience – this was the default setting for BBC period drama circa the 1970s – but it can’t be faulted for historical accuracy. It also features perhaps the only onscreen appearance of Richard Topcliffe, Elizabeth’s sadistic priest hunter, played here by the slightly less than sinister Brian Wilde (‘Foggy’ from ‘Last of the Summer Wine’).  

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Vivian Pickles as Mary

‘Mary Queen of Scots’ (1971) – Vanessa Redgrave as Mary, with Glenda Jackson reprising her role as Elizabeth I to co-star in this epic drama. The meeting of the two queens isn’t as sleek as in ‘Mary of Scotland’, and Nigel Davenport is a less dishy Bothwell but it’s still a classic. Some of the locations were authentic, if chronologically inaccurate; Bothwell’s Hermitage was used as the location where Mary gave birth to her son, James. Mercifully, she also manages to see out the nineteen years of captivity in more than just the one room. The film received several Golden Globe nominations. 

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Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth, and Vanessa Redgrave as Mary

‘A traveller in time’ (TV series; 1978) – with Heather Chasen as Mary – adapted from Alison Uttley’s book and set around the Babington home of Dethick Manor Farm, concerning Anthony Babington’s plan to free Mary from nearby Wingfield Manor. Babington also has to contest with a girl who has apparently travelled back in time because of her affinity to the tragic queen. There isn’t much for Mary to do other than wait to be rescued by actress Sophie Thompson (sister of Emma). Because the book offered a very romanticised version of Mary, the series follows suit, meaning Elizabeth ends up as little more than an offscreen bogeyman; Mary is the archetypal beautiful queen trapped in a tower by a jealous relative, just waiting for all manner of dashing suitors, including Babington, to rescue her.  

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Gunpowder,Treason and Plot’ (BBC TV series; 2004) – with Clemence Poesy as Mary; Poesy makes for a rather petulant, moody Mary but her relationship with Kevin McKidd’s Bothwell has a touch of plausibility. Any drama covering their relationship is bound to be problematic based on which side of the fence the source material stands; this drama leans more toward their union being very much consensual and fiery, whereas in the 2018 movie Bothwell is the scheming aggressor. 

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Clemence Poesy as Mary

‘Elizabeth I’ (TV series; 2005) – with Helen Mirren in the titular role, Barbara Flynn is rather overshadowed as Mary. Flynn’s portrayal shows Mary later in her captivity, and yet another imagined meeting with Elizabeth takes place. Her execution is also played out in graphic detail, right down to the executioner’s botched job at striking her neck and her head mumbling long after it had been cut off. Flynn plays Mary with a French accent, something that has always divided opinion, given that reports – at least when Mary was captive in England (at Tutbury Castle) – reported she spoke with ‘…a pretty Scottish accent’.  

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Barbara Flynn as Mary

‘The Virgin Queen’ (TV series; 2005) – with Charlotte Winner as Mary – not much onscreen Mary to be had, but rather more a cameo from Charlotte Winner; Anne-Marie Duff is far more watchable as a decidedly earthy Elizabeth I. In truth, any series that has Elizabeth I as a focal point will not bode well for Mary Stuart. 

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Charlotte Winner as Mary

‘Elizabeth – The Golden Age’ (2007) – with Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth and Samantha Morton as Mary. She might look young for Fotheringay, but Morton might be the best onscreen Mary yet; she has the ‘…pretty Scottish accent’, not to mention the curling auburn hair and a great line in Elizabeth Tudor put-downs. Her gowns aren’t particularly accurate, nor are those of her vaguely malevolent ladies-in-waiting. However, the execution scene is marvellously recreated. Eilean Donan Castle in Scotland stands in for Fotheringay Castle, and the Babington plotters also appear. 

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Samantha Morton as Mary, with her handmaids

Mary Queen of Scots’ (2013) – with Camille Rutherford as Mary – this one didn’t see a general release as such. The film offers a fairly typical – albeit bleak – portrayal of Mary’s life, with a confusing narrative and an understated performance by the lead. It was based on Stephan Zweig’s 1935 biography of Mary. 

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Camille Rutherford as Mary

‘Reign’ (TV series; 2013 – 2017) – with Adelaide Kane as Mary – a teen drama following Mary’s life in France; take this one with a far larger dose of scepticism than its unofficial predecessor ‘The Tudors’. For starters, the Four Marys are replaced by a quartet of girl band wannabes called ‘Kenna, Aylee, Lola, and Greer’. Megan Follows plays a scenery-chewing Catherine de Medici. After spending an inordinately long time concentrating on mainly fictitious events, the series does eventually move to Scotland. ‘Reign’ was probably about as close to ‘Love Island’ as Mary and her ladies-in-waiting were ever likely to get. 

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Adelaide Kane (centre) as Mary

‘Mary Queen of Scots’ (2018) – with Saoirse Ronan as Mary – Mary’s story re-imagined for a discerning, politically correct 21st-century audience and based – loosely – on John Guy’s biography. Ronan is good, but Margot Robbie’s sympathetic Elizabeth Tudor excels, particularly that scene with the foal representing the child she knows she’ll never have. Hatfield House stands in for one of Elizabeth’s London palaces, alongside a good depiction of Dunbar Castle for when Mary in her post-Darnley phase. The film includes yet another imagined meeting with Elizabeth, this one conducted rather artfully in what appears to be a rural laundry. The entirety of Mary’s time as a prisoner in England is again skimmed over in moments, with the film ending – of course – with the complimentary execution scene. 

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Margot Robbie as Elizabeth and Saiorse Ronan as Mary

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