I should begin with an admission. I’m not a great fan of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels. To me, they are tediously long and too self-consciously ‘literary’. One of the most telling remarks made about them recently was that of the eminent Tudor historian, Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose eagerly-awaited biography of Thomas Cromwell will no doubt become the standard life of the Tudor statesman for many years to come. MacCulloch said that Mantel had created ‘an alternative universe’. This no one can deny and it’s fine – so long as people recognise it for what it is, a novel with a protagonist who thinks like a 21st century man, not like a very early modern one. The historical Cromwell is, of course, a largely blank canvas on which Mantel has drawn. We know very little directly about him as a person. So how, then, would Mantel’s unlikely hero appear on the small screen?
The answer is that I was immediately beguiled – and who could not be? – by Mark Rylance’s portrayal. Rylance is primarily a theatre actor, some say the greatest of our time, and his appearances on television are rare. His portrayal of Thomas Cromwell is truly mesmerising. It’s impossible to take one’s eyes off him when he is on screen. He inhabits the role in every meaning of the word, so that I felt I really was watching a man from Tudor times. The other cast members, no matter how good, still look like highly professional actors wearing 16thcentury costume. The stillness Rylance brings to Cromwell, especially in the earlier episodes, is superbly effective. With the smallest of facial gestures he can convey the most complex of emotions. Yet the underlying threat is always there. As Henry VIII becomes more dependent on Cromwell as his ‘fixer’, you know this is a man you would not wish to cross. Claire Foy’s bossy but insecure Anne Boleyn realises this too late. I also liked Jessica Raines as a dark and malevolent Lady Rochford, an historical figure who is herself the victim of several ghastly historical novels.
There has been much comment about the production itself, notably the lighting and the so-called ‘mumbling’. Columnist Barbara Ellen wrote a predictably silly piece about Wolf Hall in the Observer. We have a television that is far from new and the passing years have not improved our hearing, but we had no trouble at all. What is wrong with these people or is it simply that if the whole thing is not in Disneyesque mode they just can’t cope? Of course the average viewer prefers Midsomer Murders. It is their loss.
There are a few quibbles. Bring up the Bodies, which many thought was the better book, is rather short-changed by being reduced to two episodes out of six and the occasional anachronism creeps in unsettlingly. The concept of Jane Seymour prodding a dozing Henry VIII to wake him during a visit to her father’s house is ridiculous. The king would probably have executed anyone who took such a liberty with the royal person. And I was slightly disappointed with the final episode which went a little ‘Hollywood’, especially with the slow-motion ending.
These reservations are, however, mere nit-picking. The BBC production of Wolf Hall is an outstanding piece of television which has turned two rather tiresome books into something unforgettable.
Linda Porter is the acclaimed author of biographies of Mary Tudor, Katherine Parr and most recently Mary Queen of Scots.