Empire is walking with three young actresses who are playing America’s first mail-order brides. We are wandering the streets of Jamestown’s titular settlement — well, a reconstruction that’s replete with all the 17th-century squalor — which will host Sky’s next flagship drama. The triumvirate of Naomi Battrick, Sophie Rundle and Niamh Walsh star as women based on those who, history attests, were recruited from England in the early 17th-century and shipped out to the nascent colony to be divvied up among the male settlers.
“It is like we’re making a Western,” begins Walsh, as we dodge the pigs and people that fill the set’s mud-tracked streets. “There’s intrigue and politics and sex, but also it is set in a real outpost. It’s really hot and there’s a shortage of food, and it’s so remote.”
Walsh, who plays Verity, continues: “It’s also great that the story is told through the eyes of three women,” she says. “We step off the ship as mail-order brides and the audience comes with us; we’re newcomers and the audience is, too.”
Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, sprang up in 1606. The founders sailed over hoping to find their fortunes. But they didn’t find gold. They didn’t find treasures. Oh no. They found starvation. They found hostile natives. They found immense privation. A few years after its founding, Jamestown was on its knees.
What was it like to go to the other side of the world, to a place about which they knew nothing?
It was then that a man called Edwin Sandys from the Virginia Company of London, which funded the colony, came up with the idea of dispatching maids for marriage. With the arrival of the women, the town finally started to flourish. When TV producer Sue de Beauvoir came across this fact, the idea for the Jamestown series was born.
“They advertised for these mail-order brides and lied on the posters as to what the reality was like out there. They said that everything was hunky dory, a life of promise, whereas in fact it wasn’t at all,” de Beauvoir says as she joins us on the sprawling set, constructed deep in the Hungarian countryside. “They specifically recruited people, using posters and by word of mouth, to get maids of virtue. It was actually considered an honour to be selected as one of the maids to go there to marry.”
The men in the colony paid 50 pounds of leaf tobacco for their brides. The girls were then packed off with a trousseau, a set of clothes, some sheets, and a pat on the back. When they disembarked on the other side of the Atlantic they were greeted by a queue of men. “And then they were allocated a husband,” de Beauvoir continues. “It was extraordinary. And it got me thinking, ‘What was it like to go to the other side of the world, to a place about which they knew nothing?’”
We will found out when the series starts in May. It comes to the screen courtesy of Downtown Abbey’s Carnival Films, although don’t expect high society at Highclere; this is rough and ready storytelling with much more death and disease and much less fine dining. Carnival’s success with the violence of The Last Kingdom has inspired yet more bruising drama. The first thing Empire sees when stepping through the Jamestown gates is a set of gallows. Life here is cheap, and brutal.
“It is a tough world,” affirms Dean Lennox Kelly, the Shameless star whose boozy character gets married to Walsh’s (the other leading males include Max Beesley and Jason Flemyng). “At one point I get nailed to a post by my ear for being drunk and disorderly, and for speaking out of turn, and being rude to the marshall,” adds Kelly. “That’s when I meet Verity. That’s our rather memorable introduction!”
And yet for all the violence, so much sprang from this single colony. Without Jamestown and Virginia, would the Pilgrims have sailed for Plymouth? “The more I looked into it, apart from the fact that it is a fascinating story about the women, there is just an amazing amount of material here,” says de Beauvoir.
“You look at that time period for 1619 and the women turned the fortunes of the colony around. And it was a big thing for empowering women because there were eight men for every female. They ended up having much more power because all these men were vying for them.
“You also had the House of Burgesses set up in 1619, which was the start of American legislation and then you also had the first Angolans shipped in, which was the start of American slavery. On top of all that there are also the relationships with the American natives.” If the series is a success, a later season may well touch on the infamous Jamestown Massacre of 1622. “This era is just a gold mine for material.”
Jamestown airs on Sky 1 and NOW TV on 5 May at 9pm.