Sunday 29 March 2015

Wolf Hall by Mantel & Straughan

I blog so much about American drama series — and I was just about to write about another one — that it is only fair to acknowledge the first British TV drama I've seen in years which seems emphatically worth celebrating.

Wolf Hall is a novel about Tudor England written by Hilary Mantel. I first began to feel kindly disposed towards Ms Mantel when she won the Booker Prize for fiction and they asked her what she was going to do with the prize money. "Spend it on sex and drugs and rock and roll," said Hilary.

Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall was published to a similar level of acclaim and now the two novels have been adapted for television (under the title of the first one), directed by Peter Kosminsky with scripts by Peter Straughan, a very gifted British screenwriter who was also responsible for the magnificent film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, co-written with his late wife Bridget O'Connor.

Wolf Hall is like a medieval version of The Godfather. Lit only by natural light — which in this period means daylight or candles — the enveloping shadows suggest the encroaching conspiracies that surround the throne. (The impressive cinematography is by Gavin Finney.) 

It tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's political fixer. Cromwell is generally regarded by history as a bad guy. Notably in Robert Bolt's brilliant play A Man for All Seasons, Cromwell is the heavy and Thomas More is virtually a saint.

Wolf Hall sets that record straight, showing Cromwell from a new perspective, and revealing startling facts about the unsavoury More – like him having captives brutally tortured under his own roof (presumably to save him the chore of commuting). Cromwell is played with quiet precision by Mark Rylance, More is Anton Lesser and Henry  VIII is Damian Lewis, whom I just finished praising for his acting in Homeland.

Mention must also be made of Claire Foy, who pulls off the profoundly impressive trick of being despicable and loathsome as Anne Boleyn while she is solidifying her position in the power structure, and then becoming heartbreaking and tragic when she is sent to her death.

A quality production all the way. But don't worry. Next week I'll be talking about American television again.

(Image credits:  The poster of Rylance's face is from Sharing Series. Damian Lewis as Henry and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn are from Live for Films. The Blu-ray cover is from Amazon.)


  1. I loved this, utterly brilliant, must see TV from BBC2

  2. Great review, Andrew. Speaking of reviewing American shows, but also period ones, I'd be interested to know your opinion of Steven Soderbergh's The Knick.