Look, there he is. He’s doing his ‘haunted’ face. This chap has a mysterious past, apparently. We still don’t know all the details. But there is trouble in sixteenth-century England, in particular with its relations with Rome, and it seems that Thomas Cromwell is the man to sort it out. But firstly he’d like the king to stop off for a couple of weeks at Wolf Hall, home of a youthful Jane Seymour…
Last time I talked about Bing Bunny. Today Mark Rylance crops up again in Wolf Hall, one of the BBC’s flagship programmes for 2015 and itself an adaptation of two novels by Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies). Both deal with the life of Thomas Cromwell and his rise to power (the eventual fall from grace, presumably, being the subject of the upcoming The Mirror and the Light). If Rylance played a saintly guardian in Bing, his character in Wolf Hall could not be more different, with Cromwell’s Machiavellian ruses forming the bulk of the narrative, his true intents usually hidden behind that chiselled, enigmatic face.
Ostensibly, this has nothing to do with Doctor Who – although this being a BBC costume drama there are the inevitable familiar faces. Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Jessica Raine, Mark Gatiss, Harry Lloyd and Jonathan Pryce all feature – although the show also finds parts for Richard Dillane, Tim Plester and Hannah Steele, all of whom have appeared in Who, along with numerous others that I’d tell you about if I had the inclination to go through every single IMDB listing. Harry Lloyd, in particular, is marvellous, playing as he does a slightly older and only slightly less warped version of the demonic Baines / Son of Mine in the ‘Human Nature’ / ‘Family of Blood’ two-parter. As for Jonathan Pryce, I kept expecting him to grow a beard and cackle, or start singing Lloyd Webber songs.
It’s wonderful television. Those who complain about the pacing have clearly never seen a Ken Loach movie. There is a place for frantic cuts and heavily condensed exposition, but it’s not in the court of Henry VIII. The sets are moody and well-lit, and the score is mournful and sets the mood perfectly. The script is by turns witty and as quotable as Shakespeare. There is not a single duff performance – even Mark Gatiss turns in something that might passably be considered acting – and the air of menace and intrigue is beautifully, subtly realised. This is not a nice England (even if you’re rich), nor is it safe. But it is bawdy. The BBC got into hot water over its use of the word ‘cunt’ – which seems unfair, somehow, given that that’s how people spoke. There are books on the etymology of bad language and its history, and this isn’t the place for such a debate, but sometimes I look at the stuff in The Canterbury Tales and I wonder when we got quite so prudish. The Victorian era, perhaps. That’s probably when. If nothing else, blame the Victorians.
Historical liberties may be up for grabs, of course. Cromwell, in particular, is given a greater degree of humanity than he is perhaps normally granted (this is presumably down to his depiction in Hilary Mantel’s original text, which I’m about to read, as much as it is due to Rylance’s carefully precise performance). Thomas More, meanwhile, is seen torturing a would-be protestant, something that Cromwell is notably not seen doing, even though he makes good on his promise for revenge in the closing episode with some particularly calculated nastiness (I’d tell you more, but we’re in spoiler territory). Cromwell is not a nice man, you sense, but early scenes with his family show him in a more positive light than More is granted – a moment, in particular, when he opens a contraband English copy of the Bible, noting “How can it be sacrilege?”, makes it hard to disagree with his intentions, even if the end doesn’t always justify the means.
So it’s great, and if you haven’t seen it, you really should. But if you go through all six episodes of a dramatic serial more or less back to back, the recurring motifs become a little more visible. So here are the things I spotted. I was going to turn this into a drinking game, but from what I can see that ship has sailed. Nonetheless, if you watch Wolf Hall you’ll notice –
1. Damian Lewis (Henry VIII) spreads his legs and puts his hands on his hips in an uncanny impersonation of a sugar bowl. (He’ll tell you he’s a little teapot, of course, but he’s in denial.)
2. Claire Foy (Anne Boleyn) says something acidic.
3. Bernard Hill (the Duke of Norfolk) shouts, usually using at least one of the words ‘fuck’, ‘arse’ or ‘bollocks’. Or any combination thereof.
(Memo to the Doctor Who production team – can we please get Bernard Hill in series ten, preferably as a grumpy luddite who teams up with the Doctor at a nineteenth century cotton mill invaded by evil meerkats?)
4. Two words: needlework.
5. Finally, Mark Rylance stands at a group gathering looking like he’s just smelled a fart.
Next time: east meets west. But you’ll have to wait ’til Friday…