‘Simply brilliant TV’ was how the Independent quite rightly lavished praise on the BBC adaptation of the first two volumes of Hilary Mantel’s as yet unfinished Wolf Hall trilogy.  The series – directed by Peter Kosminsky from a superb script by Peter Straughan – was exceptional television, as far removed from routine costume drama as Mantel’s originals were from simple categorisation as historical novels.

Mark Rylance as Cromwell
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in ‘Wolf Hall’

Watching the final episode which culminated with a truly exceptional portrayal of the beheading of Anne Boleyn which leapt from the screen as heart-rending and as raw and brutal as an ISIS execution video, the thought came to me: this is exactly what Shakespeare did. He took the old chronicles and from their vague and impersonal record shaped spell-binding dramas of family conflict and moral complexity. Peter Straughan’s scripts somehow managed to preserve the sense and style of Mantel’s original, whilst creating a work that was exceptional in its own terms. Director Peter Kosminsky said of reading them for the first time that Straughan’s scripts were the best he had ever read:

When I saw Peter Straughan’s script, only a first draft, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. It was the best draft I had ever seen. He had managed to distil 1,000 pages of the novels into six hours, using prose so sensitively. … It is an intensely political piece. It is about the politics of despotism, and how you function around an absolute ruler. I have a sense that Hilary Mantel wanted that immediacy.

Hilary Mantel called the scripts a miracle for their nuanced understanding of the material. Straughan is a playwright by trade – for some time he was writer in residence at Newcastle’s Live Theatre Company; more recently he has written several screenplays, including doing clever things for the 2011 film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a similar exercise in masterful compression, co-written with his wife, Bridget O’Connor. You have to wonder at his skill in condensing a thousand pages into a six-part drama. Straughan gave the series narrative drive and Shakespearian intensity by making revenge and suppressed sexual desire the spine of the series.  Cromwell’s opportunity for avenging the death of his patron Cardinal Wolsey comes in the final episode, in which Shakespearian tragedy and questions of justice and personal morality are entwined with the complicated relationship between Cromwell and the intelligent and impetuous Anne Boleyn (in Bring up the Bodies, Cromwell remarks that ‘it is a pleasure to see Anne thinking’ )

There had been a pivotal scene – typically almost wordless –  in the third episode after Anne’s coronation in which Straughan delineated that relationship. Anne and Cromwell observe Henry from a window in Whitehall. Cromwell watches her intently, her breast rising and falling as she breathes. He imagines kissing her neck. It’s a brief moment, but charged with electricity and a sort of complicity. Played brilliantly by Claire Foy, both haughty and flirtatious, Boleyn will constantly remind Cromwell that it was she who kept him in the King’s favour – ‘I promoted you. I am responsible for your rise’ – and mock him by her pronunciation of his name as ‘Cremuel’.


Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell

If Claire Foy’s Anne Boleyn was brilliant, Mark Rylance’s performance as Cromwell was stratospheric. Playing the self-made man from the back streets of Putney who has risen to be the King’s trusted right man, Rylance made this shadowy figure from history living flesh and blood. In terms of the documentary sources, Cromwell is something of an enigma, the blacksmith’s son who rises from the ranks of those who were meant to keep to their ordained place in society, to become perhaps the most powerful man in England after the king. But Mantel took the shadowy outlines of an ambitious outsider, to create a tragedy that invokes genuine empathetic feeling for a man who is far from being innocent – particularly towards the end.  Mark Rylance’s performance – one of looks and gestures as much as words – only added intensity to Mantel’s characterisation.

In the final episode of the TV dramatisation, as fate closes in on Anne Boleyn, Cromwell says to her, ‘Madam, nothing here is personal.’ This is Cromwell exculpating himself as he begins the legal process of framing her for adultery. But these are the words, too, of a man who perhaps knows that he is in too deep now: at Henry’s court, it doesn’t matter who you are – if you stand in the way of Henry’s will, you must be dispatched without mercy. Boleyn, the truth dawning on her too, retorts: ‘Those who have been made can be unmade.’ Cromwell, the self-made man, turns to face the woman who, through her skilful manipulation has made herself queen, and says simply: ‘I entirely agree’.

There remains this sense of a different man within, though increasingly difficult to reach. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Cromwell speaks to the French executioner employed specially for his skill in doing the job quickly and cleanly.  It is Henry’s last mercy, or perhaps it is Cromwell’s. Handed the sword, Cromwell wields it tentatively, and we can intuit him sensing his own guilt – and perhaps intimations of his own fate.


Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall

The beheading scene was appropriately terrifying, the wind whipping Boleyn’s head-covering as she mounted the scaffold. Claire Foy’s performance in this scene was outstanding.  On the way to the scaffold, Boleyn keeps looking up at a window in the Tower overlooking the courtyard.  In the screenplay, an onlooker asks, ‘Why does she keep looking up?’  On TV, there is no answer, but in Mantel’s book we can sense the reason.

Cromwell had managed to fashion a case of sorts against five men, each accused of adultery with the queen and executed on 17 May 1536.  Another man, the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, was caught in Cromwell’s snare, too. Wyatt was probably the only one who had been Anne’s lover, though before her marriage to Henry.  Imprisoned in the Bell Tower, Sir Thomas Wyatt saw the executions of George Boleyn, Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton, inspiring him to write the poem, ‘The Bell Towre Showed me Such a Syght’ .  Two days later he heard of the execution of his friend, Anne Boleyn.  In his poem, each verse ends with the line ‘circa Regna tonat’, meaning ‘About the Throne the Thunder Rolls’.  These are the last two verses:

These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, circa Regna tonat.

The Bell Tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory, or might,
That yet circa Regna tonat.

Hilary Mantel has said of the TV adaptation that ‘there has been a tendency in recent years to make costume dramas, not historical dramas – to make them look absolutely gorgeous, which covers the completely vapid nature of the material’. Well, there was nothing vapid about this series, in which every element meshed with perfection. The acting was of the finest quality – not only by Mark Rylance and Claire Foy, but with tremendous performances, too, by Damian Lewis as Henry VIII, Jonathan Pryce as Thomas Wolsey, and Anton Lesser as Thomas More.

Wolf Hall candlelit

Lit by candles

Apart from the script and the acting, there has been a great deal of discussion of the lighting and camera work. All the interior night scenes were shot by candlelight, which reinforced the realism and atmosphere of those scenes.  The director Peter Kosminsky told the Telegraph:

So you had the bizarre situation, like at Penshurst Place, where you’re doing a scene with Henry VIII in a room that he had stood in, at night, lit in exactly the same way that the room was built to be lit. It created a wonderful look, but also, for the performers, it created an amazing feeling of really being there. You can’t beat that. Take a good actor and put them in the right environment to allow them to do their best work – that’s my job, really.

Reading Hilary Mantel’s novels, one of her triumphs is that the characters have no sense that they are in history. That sense was palpable , too, in the TV series. As Kosminsky  says:

They just seem to think they’re living their lives – which they were. Henry doesn’t realise he’s going to have six wives, and kill several of them. Anne Boleyn doesn’t know she’s going to be decapitated by a French swordsman from Calais. So that deserves a kind of immediacy in the way you make it. I wanted to make it feel real. I didn’t try to ‘feature’ the costumes, or the buildings, or the food.

Kosminsky had never directed period drama before Wolf Hall. His work has been almost exclusively contemporary, and very political. Mark Rylance played the UN weapons inspector David Kelly in his 2005 drama The Government Inspector, and  I saw and admired the series he directed for Channel 4 in 2011 about the Israel – Palestine conflict, The Promise (the first time I had been aware of Claire Foy in a starring role). Kosminsky’s next project is about Islamic State, and it seems that he – and Mark Rylance – are already committed to filming the sequel, The Mirror and the Light – once Hilary Mantel has completed it.

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5 thoughts on “Wolf Hall: These bloody days have broken my heart

  1. I so agree Gerry. I thought: how on earth are they going to get the subtleties of the book, the gestures, get inside Cromwell’s mind? I nearly did not watch the series. But they did it – with such intelligence. Best thing on TV this year.

  2. Hhmm. The trouble, for me at least, is how much of Mantel is true, and how much is manufactured for effect. OK, Shakespeare wove the historical record into a literary fiction, but without the benefit of a universal cultural medium – TV. Hence, restricted impact. For a thought on the relationship between historical assessments and fiction, track down Simon Schama’s essay in the FT

    1. I had a look at Schama’s essay (had to answer a marketing survey question in order to pass the pay wall) – interesting survey of historical fiction, but in the end I think his point was simply that the business of historians is different to that of writers of historical literature. But surely that is a given for anyone who thinks about it. Mantel may have done some serious background research before writing Wolf Hall, but surely most people would not to look to writers like Mantel – or Shakespeare for that matter – for historical accuracy (although that statement opens up a whole can of worms about the extent to which historians reflect, in their choice of subject or their interpretation of the sources, their own predispositions, or those of their time or place. And wouldn’t it be true to say that Shakespeare, though his impact may have been limited in his own day, has had a huge, worldwide influence since, affecting audience impressions of historical figures such as Henry V? But again, do thinking people go to see a Shakespeare play for a history lesson – or for a drama that makes them think – about family relations, individual psychology, or questions of morality?

  3. But, following Schama’s comments, she produces a radically dfferent representation of Thomas Cromwell from that offered by research-based historians. And largely, Shakespeare for example gets his character judgements right. Richard II was indeed weak and vain; Henry V was indeed courageous and resolute. That was how they were seen in the 16th century; indeed, in the 14th & 15th century too. And it’s how historians assess them today. Not sure I’ll ever forgive Mantel for her dreadful novel on the French Revolution, ‘A Place of Greater Safety’.

    1. Mantel’s representation of Cromwell is basically that of Geoffrey Elton’s ‘England under the Tudors’ the set text I had for A-level History in the sixties – at least in terms of the way he went about doing his master’s bidding – constitutionally, legally, and thereby instigating an English revolution. Obviously, Mantel has extrapolated from that things we cannot know about the man’s personality or morality. But what is clear is that he was a modern, free-thinking individual trying (ultimately failing) to steer a course through the treacherous politics of a Tudor court.

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