Jillian Mannion is an award-winning TV writer that has worked on several projects such as BBC’s River City, the LEO Award-nominated Random Acts of Romance, Casualty, and Death in Paradise. She is the head writer for Netflix’s Blood, Sex & Royalty.
Mannion is a graduate of the Vancouver Film School and in February 2022, she was awarded the Best Long Running Series Award from WGGB for an episode of River City.
Mannion spoke to The Envoy Web about her experiences as the head writer of Blood, Sex & Royalty and her thoughts on telling the story of such an iconic figure in history.
Can you tell me more about how you became attached to this project or whether this was something that you envisioned and put forward as an option?
Blood, Sex & Royalty – Anne Boleyn was created by the production company Nutopia. I had met one of the show’s Executive Producers through Women in Film & Television UK.
They had read my work and knew I had a passion for telling historical stories and had a keen interest in the wives of Henry VIII so reached out to ask if I would be interested in helping out with the project but I ended up becoming lead writer.
During my time at University studying History and English, I’d always felt that Anne Boleyn had been short-changed in how she was depicted on screen. Many portrayals of her were inaccurate and painted her as a spell-binding sorceress or master manipulator who deserved her fate.
Since pouring through books and historical texts about her in my twenties, I’d thought about writing something from her point-of-view that could tell her story in a unique way so to get the chance to do that was incredible.
The anachronistic nature of the script in certain moments is one of the most charming aspects of the series, what was the mindset you adopted while working on it?
Making the audience be able to relate to Anne was key to the entire story. Many sources talk about Anne’s intelligence and wit so we really wanted that to shine through.
A fresh way of doing that was to throw away the old-fashioned language and have her talk to us as the audience and most of the other characters like we were her friends.
We wanted to stay true to the actions of her character and what she did in real life so this would be an accurate portrayal. Almost everything that happens in the story happened in real life, but the language and dialogue were things that we could change to give this a modern twist and bring the viewer into an unfamiliar, interesting world.
The fascinating thing about Anne’s story is that while there has obviously been a progression for women since her time, there’s still a long way to go and her tale reminds us of that. The fact that there are modern touches to it really speak to that idea I think.
We knew that most audience members would obviously know the ending of Anne’s story so we had to do something different in our approach to make them want to go on Anne’s journey all the way to the end and the anachronism allowed us to do that. It also allowed us to give Anne a fresh and interesting voice, which she did actually have.
Many sources talk about how different she was due to her education and experience in France, her ambition, and her sympathetic and caring political views. If we had depicted that in a typical, obvious fashion it probably wouldn’t have worked in the same way.
The style in which the story is told is also a break from the usual form in period pieces which usually move chronologically. We jump back and forth from Anne once she is arrested and talking to Kingston, ruminating how she ended up here, to her earlier days leading all the way up to her present. Kingston is in the same position as the audience and we assume he’s on Anne’s side as we are.
While we knew she dined and talked to Kingston every night, we didn’t know how she was feeling so had to explore what her emotions in those moments would have been. It was a lot of fun being able to bring Anne and those around her into the present and has hopefully brought her to a new audience.
How would you say this project compares to some of the more fictional work you have been involved with throughout your career?
Despite my interest in history, everything else I’ve written up to now has been fictional so Blood, Sex & Royalty was the first period and the first real-life based project I’d worked on. I write features and TV and love being able to figure the story out before I start writing, but you often have carte blanche to take it where you like.
We couldn’t do that in Blood, Sex & Royalty, but there was so much drama in Anne’s life that it wasn’t difficult to find those big dramatic moments. If anything, there were too many of them and we had to leave some out! It was nice to never have a moment where you think about what happens next as so often happens on fictional pieces.
Having said that, it was a challenge thinking about what to cut from the story and pouring through all the research, but I loved it. I’d seen the blending of drama with talking-head historians many times before but had never written dramatic scenes that would go hand-in-hand with a historical viewpoint.
The producers had such a great vision for how the two segments would work together and liaising with a factual team essentially on the story was a brilliant experience that writers rarely get to have. I think that fusion enriched the story.
Would you see yourself working on more historical stories, perhaps any other influential monarch or individual that has impacted history in a significant way?
I’ve written in many genres – romantic comedy, police procedural, medical drama, continuing drama but I’d say that period biopic has been my favorite so far. I’d love to work on more historical stories whether fictional or factual-based.
There are many figures in history that I’d love to see a fresh take on: Robert Burns and Mary, Queen of Scots are at the top of my list. They’re both fascinating characters and there’s lots of sources that show a different side to them that audiences haven’t seen yet.
There’s evidence to suggest that Burns may have been bipolar and I’m in awe of Mary, Queen of Scots’s courage – especially when she was held at gunpoint by criminals and had to ride to Edinburgh on horseback while heavily pregnant just to escape them.
We often see a retelling of the same stories around these kind of figures but when you really get into the research there’s a whole other side to them that’s never been explored and that’s so interesting to me.
Do you have plans to branch into other disciplines within the industry such as trying your hand as a director?
Ha ha – I always said I never wanted to direct and only ever wanted to write! That changed after I was a mentee on Women in Film and TV’s 4 Nations Mentoring Scheme. We were given training in smartphone filmmaking by the amazing Jane Mote and her team at beechtobeach.
I was a complete technophobe who thought there was no way I would be able to do the workshops, but I couldn’t believe what could be done on a phone! It was just so impressive.
As a working mum with two young kids, I’d sort of accepted that I wouldn’t have the time to pick up brand-new skills, but Jane and her team broke it down in such an accessible way.
She set us the task of making a 3-minute short film on our phones – the whole thing had to be shot and edited on the phone.
I was utterly terrified as I felt like I was nothing more than a writer and had no business trying to explore anything else, but I wrote a script that had something to say and could be shot locally with one young actress (the brilliant Daisy Young) and just got out there and made it.
It felt amazing to be able to shoot exactly what I wanted to and direct the film exactly as I’d pictured it. I had no idea I’d enjoy it or learn as much as I did. And I discovered that I loved editing! I can totally see why the editor is often described as the other writer of the script.
Being able to choose how it was put together, which shots were used, and adding the music made it feel like something that was mine from start to finish.
It’s got me hooked on smartphone filmmaking and I’ve collaborated with Jane on a second short film that we both produced and I directed. We’re now planning our third, which I’m very excited about!
As an established and award-winning screenwriter, do you have any words of advice for budding writers following a similar path?
Never give up. Tenacity is just as important as talent in screenwriting. You have to be able to handle rejection, pick yourself up when you hear another no, and still believe in yourself and the stories you want to tell.
Vancouver Film School (VFS) did such a good job of not only teaching screenwriting but preparing me for what the industry was like and encouraging me and inspiring me to keep going when it gets tough.
My other words of advice would be about screenplay structure. I remember our teachers at VFS stressing its importance and making sure we knew it inside out and that’s served me well as the feedback I usually receive about my writing is often to do with that.
It’s so important. If the structure is on point then everything else can be fixed. I owe a lot to my time at VFS. There hasn’t been a single skill that I learned there that I haven’t had to use in writing.