Friday 13 February 2015


The airing of Wolf Hall’s small screen cousin has provoked a good deal of discussion: is it too slow; is it too confusing; is it too dark; wasn’t Henry fatter; wasn’t Cromwell more of a monster; is it accurate?

Mark Rylance with director, Peter Kosminsky (Radio Times)

The question of historical truth comes around again and again. The Imitation Game ruffled feathers for, amongst other things depicting Turing as possibly involved in (or knew about and turned a blind eye to) treachery when there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that this might have been the case. People have complained that there wasn’t enough science in The Theory of Everything, without stopping to think that the film is an adaptation of Jane Hawking’s book – it is her version of events not his. Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner provoked tumultuous critical delight over Timothy Spall’s snorting, grunting performance, which I personally found grotesquely over-played. ‘But he was supposed to be just like that,’ people cried in response to my criticism. ‘Based on what exactly?’ I asked. 

Anne Boleyn plus PA (Daily Mail)
We can get so wrapped up in the idea of accuracy that it is easy to forget such a thing is impossible. With Wolf Hall it’s all been about the authenticity, with costume designers talking about how they only used fabrics of the period and correct fastenings – mostly pins, in case you were wondering and not zips, which was the accusation levelled (hotly denied, I might add) at the recent White Queen adaptation. But, I ask myself are they all going commando because as all self-respecting Tudorphiles will know, knickers hadn’t been invented in the sixteenth century.

The ‘authentic’ lighting (mainly candlelight for interiors and nothing outside) has meant a good deal of viewers grumbling about not being able to see anything. ‘Ah but that is how it would have been,’ come the replies. That may be so but to our twenty-first century eyes, used to the brightness of the present, our response to it is jarring and confusing. A Tudor would not have responded in such a way; it would have been the norm, their eyes would have been accustomed to a dimmer world, more in tune with the seasons and fluctuating hours of daylight. What I’m trying to get at is that absolute authenticity remains out of reach, like Plato’s perfect forms, and to try so hard at it can be a futile project.

Rylance as Cromwell
Holbein's Cromwell
I like the gloom of Wolf Hall, not because of its historical veracity, but mainly because it works with the shadiness of its protagonist. Though unfortunately in some of the exterior scenes, shot in the gloaming it looks, on my brand new super-duper-HD TV, rather than atmospherically shadowy, depressingly redolent of low-tech BBC costume drama from the 1970s. But I sympathise with the intention even if the outcome is not necessarily wholly successful because I find myself noticing other things, like the puzzling absence of mud in the exterior scenes and the manicured gravel driveways and the dog that looked suspiciously like a cockapoo and Anne pronouncing his name (Purcoy) phonetically rather than the French way (Pur-cwa) as she would have. Now I'm just being a pedant and the point I'm trying to make is that none of it really matters; what matters is the effect it has.

Lewis's Henry VIII
Then of course there’s the question of Cromwell and his character. Views on this are polarised. A historian friend of mine believes Mantel’s Cromwell is too modern in sensibility. It seems to be Mantel’s project to explore the possibility that Cromwell was a remarkable self-made man, and yes, darkly complex and Machiavellian but not just, to borrow Dairmud MacCulloch’s term, ‘a thug in a doublet’; whereas revisionist historians seek to expose the Reformation, the promotion of which was Cromwell’s life’s work, as an act of monstrous destruction akin to the acts of fundamentalists in North Africa today. We will never find a definitive truth but what is good is that texts such as this open up discussion.
Rhys Meyer's Henry VIII

What a TV show like Wolf Hall is attempting to do is to set itself above the usual costume drama. It’s narrative is convoluted, it refuses to spoon feed us, makes us work hard, makes us think. It says ‘I am authentic,’ suggesting that Jonathan Ryhs Meyers in his hopelessly anachronistic, yet very fetching, faux-Tudor gear, is not – I couldn’t possibly comment. But when we watch TV we know that only a few feet away is a fellow with a big camera and that we’ve seen these actors in other roles, that they’re all pretending. We want to suspend our disbelief, we’re in on the sleight of hand, and do we care if they are wearing knickers? I suspect not.

Elizabeth Fremantle's Tudor novels Queen's Gambit about Katherine Parr and Sisters of Treason about the sisters of Lady Jane Grey are published by Penguin.

Find out more about Elizabeth and her books on


Sue Purkiss said...

Absolutely - I think you sum it up when you say 'absolute authenticity remains out of reach, like Plato's perfect forms.'

Susan Price said...

Authenticity does remain out of reach - but I think it's worth trying for. If it gives modern audiences a jar, good. It reminds us that the past is another country.

I like the naturalistic lighting and dark, firelit interiors in Wolf Hall. It makes me think about what it must have been like. to live with so much darkness.

I don't know enough, in detail, to say whether Cromwell was a monster or Mantel's sensitive soul - though, taking a line from more recent events, probably more of a monster.

What does surprise me is how much Rylance actually looks like Holbein's portrait of Cromwell when you see them side by side, despite all the comments that Rylance was 'too sensitive, too thin' and so on. He is a little thinner, but the line of the brows, the face-shape, the nose, are all very much alike.

And hello again, Sue Purkiss! Didn't I just see you over at ABBA?

Christina Koning said...

Thanks for your very interesting and thoughtful comments on the whole 'authenticity' question, Elizabeth. Having struggled with this myself in writing about the 18th and 19th centuries, I felt what you said about the need to strike a balance between historical veracity and present-day sensibility was absolutely right. Then there's the fact that we're dealing with works of fiction here, where the author's interpretation of the known facts is key. Mantel's Cromwell may not be everyone else's, but he is a powerful and compelling literary presence - just as Rylance's version offers a compelling theatrical 'take' on the man. I, too, love the dark and shadowy Tudor interiors in the current 'Wolf Hall' adaptation. They seem entirely right for the period, and for the dark goings-on at Henry's court. And I loved your comment about the knickers - will watch the actors with a new interest in forthcoming episodes!

Frances Bevan said...

I think this is a wonderfully rounded comment on Wolf Hall, with which I thoroughly agree. I think it is a very subtle production and one I am enjoying. I think the last episode showed Cromwell's more sinister side and I am waiting for Damian Lewis to let rip, as I am sure he will soon. Although The Tudors had its obvious appeal, I much prefer Wolf Hall.

Ann Turnbull said...

I love the dark, candle-lit interiors too and don't have any problem seeing what's going on. Better still, I can HEAR nearly everything they say (the exception being Mary Boleyn.) It is such a treat not to need the sub-titles on during a TV drama! I'd love it just for that. But I also love the slowness. As for the question of authenticity, well it's obviously not entirely authentic, but it has the feel of truth, which is surely what we want from a drama. There is a wonderful sense of menace building up. And who can possibly know what Thomas Cromwell was really like?

Mike Hall said...

A very interesting post.

Regarding the “authentic” lighting in Wolf Hall, I'm sceptical about the “that is how it would have been” response. I have no problem with candlelight, etc, but we inevitably watch television with light adapted eyes – if only because the previous scene was brightly lit, though we are often also sitting in a well lit room - and what I believe should be put on screen is a view that (to our light adapted eyes) shows what we would have seen were our eyes fully adapted to the ambient light levels assumed to be experience by the actors.

I’m happy to see the colours reduced to shades of grey but, unless the action is outside on a moonless night, we should see a lot more than production teams typically give us (and Wolf Hall is by no means the only or worst offender). If the actors are represented as being able to see what they are doing then we should be in no doubt what that is.

I wonder if part of the problem is that the “twenty- first century eyes” of many of the people making these programs have never really experienced prolonged low light conditions and thus do not realise how much one can see once one’s pupils have expanded to a 7mm diameter (or maybe 5mm for old fogies like me). Asking around, the only people I found who had recently experienced low light conditions for long enough to really adapt – whilst still awake – were the local amateur astronomers, though they mostly complained that light pollution meant it is never really dark these days!

Marjorie said...

I've been loving it -and part oft he fun is trying to work out what is, and isn't authentic. (I did notice the surprising lack of mud!)
And I admit I a felt the tiniest bit smug that I managed to stay ahead, in my reading of the books!
I am now feeling impatient for the third book!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Haven't seen this yet and probably won't till it's on DVD, but that Henry looks more like my idea of the man than Jonathan RM. I have seen an episode or two of The Tudors and found it hard to swallow anyway.

The spirit of a production is what matters to me - and I'd rather be able to see what 's going on.

As for knickers, I have an entertaining memory of a scene in Robin Of Sherwood where Will Scarlett is climbing a cliff and his stunt man is wearing *bright red* knickers which show as he climbs! I laughed uproariously when I got over the surprise.

Celia Rees said...

At least they chose an actor to play Henry who had the right hair colour. I was always puzzled that recent previous productions ignored the hair and beard colour of one of the most famous red heads of all time. Away with all the petty carping. Wolf Hall is far superior to any of the recent Tudor depictions and nicely bucks the trend to make every historical programme, fact or fiction, a kind of Game of Thrones minus dragons.