Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell

Machiavellian manoeuvres in the dark

Peter Kosminsky (director) Wolf Hall BBC2, Wednesdays 9pm

As this edition of the Weekly Worker lands on your doormat or graces your browser window, the fourth episode of the BBC’s six-part dramatisation of Hilary Mantel’s novels, Wolf Hall and Bring up the bodies, will have been aired. It will be interesting to see if viewing figures have held up.

Following much fanfare and hype from the Beeb, 3.9 million viewers tuned in for the first instalment. By episode two this was down by about a million and episode three saw 2.6 million viewers stick with it. Perhaps those who switched over to Midsummer murders on ITV were hoping for more Downton Abbey-type period soap opera. While Mantel’s hefty books have been overwhelmingly well received, winning two Man Booker prizes (Wolf Hall 2009; Bring up the bodies 2012), many critics have been less taken with the BBC’s adaptation, which has received a mixed bag of reviews. While there have been some glowing responses and few who rubbish it entirely, there is a significant number of the commentariat of the opinion that - well, it’s good, but not all it was hyped up to be. I think some of this can be put down to impatience.

In an attempt at 15th century authenticity, director Peter Kosminsky has filmed indoor night-time scenes in candlelight, which seemingly flummoxed a lot of viewers, who failed to make out what was going on. Another commonly held criticism is that the plot is not explicit. Kosminsky’s minimal introductory titles and reliance upon dialogue between characters, completely avoiding monologues or voiceovers, leaves the audience having to work at what is happening. While reading some reviews of Wolf Hall, I could not help but wonder if critics would have preferred Thomas Cromwell to have had a cringe-worthy Carrie Bradshaw-style voiceover narration ... The Daily Telegraph’s Michael Leapman criticised Kosminsky’s failure to make use of the energy of actor Mark Rylance (playing Thomas Cromwell), who confined himself “largely to a single facial expression” (February 6). Quite what Leapman had in mind for the character is anybody’s guess: ‘Shaolin Tudor’?

For what it is worth, I have found the direction of Wolf Hall to be skilful. The story is ostensibly told from the point of view of the lawyer and advisor to Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell. With that in mind, we are rarely privy to anything said beyond the earshot of Cromwell. The audience tends not to enter a room before he does. We are told the story mostly through his experiences.

Rylance is a skilled actor and gives a strong performance as Cromwell through well written dialogue and subtle expression. His co-star, Damien Lewis, who readers may remember from HBO’s Band of brothers or more recently as Sergeant Brody in Homeland, is also very strong as Henry VIII (though I do struggle not to think of him as Brody). Lewis’s handsome demeanour is at odds with the stereotypical image of Henry as a portly, gout-ridden man - even in Holbein’s painting he’s far from pretty. Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Wolsey was a bit stiff, but, given that his character soon became exactly that, it is not massively off-putting. Incidentally, Wolsey would have been 57 at the time, not the octogenarian he appears to be on screen.

As to the plot, we all know the general history. King Henry, his desire for a male heir, his wives, their eventual lack of heads ... and then the fight with Rome and the reformation of the Church of England. What we see in Wolf Hall is the high stakes, the Machiavellian political power-plays of the Tudor court. The moron who equated prince Charles’s Clarence Court with Wolf Hall clearly has no understanding of real politics. The petty desire for backhanders and knighthoods among those who grovel before the royal family today bears no comparison to the life-and-death gambles, plays and manoeuvres that could see you to either massive wealth and influence or your head on the block under Henry Tudor.

Wolf Hall portrays the political calculations, vengeances and sexual desires and frustrations of the key characters through subtly themed episodes. Thomas Cromwell is depicted affectionately by Rylance. He is not shown as a kind of Peter Mandelson of the day - spinning events, his loyalty bought; but as passionate man with progressive views. We see tenderness and pain, as we witness the death of his wife from sweating sickness, and especially so, as we watch his children suffer the same fate. His character’s humanity and passion are developed through his affair with his sister-in-law (trapped in a sexless marriage) and his slightly steamy flirtations with both Boleyn sisters. This Cromwell is not Leo McKern’s A man for all seasons: a cold, calculating bureaucrat. Undoubtedly, the real man was a clever, astute politician, whatever his flaws. A player in the court who lived a lavish lifestyle, but who never reached the heights of power, due to his background.

The story so far …

In the first episode, Three-card trick, we watch the fall of Wolsey, as he fails to get annulment for Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The loyalty of Cromwell to the cardinal, his master, while others jump ship, is also featured. Much mention is made of both characters’ ‘humble’ origins: Wolsey is a butcher’s son; Cromwell the son of a blacksmith (perhaps this is seen as the reason for Cromwell’s loyalty). We meet and then watch the departure of Cromwell’s wife and children - this is done remarkably movingly, given we have known the characters for little more than 20 minutes. We also meet the shrill and calculating Anne Boleyn and her more affable sister, Mary (Henry’s previous lover). We do not meet Henry himself until the first episode is drawing to a close.

But there is more of Henry in episode two, Entirely beloved. Here begins the emergence of trust towards Cromwell by the king, who takes him into his confidence. Cromwell, in typical form, plays a tactical hand, advising Henry to tax the corrupt monks and monasteries. Cromwell is now on the inside. Later Henry summons him in the middle of the night - the household fears that he is being arrested. Instead he is taken to the king’s bedside, as he has woken from a nightmare in which his dead brother and heir to the throne has visited him. Cromwell eases Henry’s worries, spinning the dream to show the king as a courageous leader. He has Henry’s ear - and his trust.

Wolsey is up north in Yorkshire, but receiving far too much of a following for comfort. Cromwell’s decision to remain in London could have been taken, as he claims, in order to fight Wolsey’s corner in the corridors of power - or perhaps it was to distance himself from Wolsey, whose fate is looking grim. Harry Percy, who Wolsey once tried to stop marrying Anne Boleyn, is sent to bring Wolsey back to London for his execution. Wolsey dies on his way back, refusing to eat.

Meanwhile, Thomas More, the lord chancellor loyal to the Catholic church, is portrayed as eccentric, cunning and powerful. More is traditionally viewed, especially in Catholic accounts of history, as the ‘good man’, who righteously defends his faith at his own cost. In Mantel’s portrayal, More is the villain, the torturer of ‘heretics’ who would have the Bible translated from Latin. His lackey, Stephen Gardener (played by Mark Gatiss), Cromwell’s nemesis, provides witty, curt and knowingly cynical exchanges with Cromwell that would befit a 15th century version of Yes minister or The thick of it.

Episode three, Anna Regina, is where the series really gets going. It is set two years later in 1531, when Cromwell is better off, yet engineers himself a job as ‘keeper of the jewels’. James Bainham, Cromwell’s barrister, is arrested for promoting William Tyndale’s English version of the Bible (copies of which had been smuggled into England from Germany).

Henry takes matters into his own hands, asking parliament to endorse him as head of the church, so that he has the power to annul his marriage to Catherine. The Commons vote is orchestrated by Cromwell to take place in full view of the king, ensuring a significant majority.

Rumours that Anne’s prized virginity had been long lost to the once amorous Harry Percy cause Cromwell to pay the latter a visit. Cromwell leans on him, informing Percy that the world is no longer run by armies, but by bankers. And, of course, Cromwell knows all of Percy’s debts and his creditors.

Meanwhile Cromwell’s own sex life is becoming intriguing. His affair with sister-in-law Johane ends when her mother finds out (this would have been regarded as semi-incestuous by Catholics at the time). It is implied that he sees her as a substitute for his late wife, accidentally referring to her as “Liz”, as she leaves.

There are others on Cromwell’s ‘list’ of affections. In a scene prior to Anne’s marriage, when it is clear she and Cromwell have won, Thomas and Anne watch the courtyard below them from a balcony. There is a fairly erotic shot with Cromwell, stroking her heaving breasts. Although the next cut sees him standing further back, indicating that this was a mere fantasy on Cromwell’s part, this is so incongruous with the style of the series that we are left questioning if the liaison took place at all.

In a later scene, Thomas is in the gardens at Calais (while Anne is at last naked in bed with Henry). Mary Boleyn offers herself to Cromwell, albeit as her second choice, having believed she was stood up. When her tardy suitor arrives unexpectedly in the darkness, Thomas puts a knife to his neck before anyone can realise what is happening - Cromwell’s past in Europe has made him more than just a man of words. Thomas leaves Mary with her lover and goes to bed “to pray”.

Not satisfied with the Boleyn sisters, Cromwell also appears to have an interest in Anne’s young maid, Jane Seymour, whom Anne treats dismissively. We met Seymour earlier in Anne’s chamber, where she had been sent as an ineffectual spy (not understanding any French). Then she appeared naive; now she seems marginally more worldly, but still a bit wet.

As the third instalment closes, Anne, now, pregnant, believes herself secure. The so-called ‘Holy Maid of Kent’ is prophesising against Henry’s marriage and claims to see his daughter to Catherine, Mary (later to be known as Bloody Mary, on account of her burning of heretic Protestants), taking the throne (incidentally, we first meet the weak and shrimp-like Mary when she is suffering from period pains). And James Bainham is burned at the stake after, having been released, he was unable to keep quiet about his convictions and was re-arrested. This subtly thematic circle of events is a good example of the director’s well-crafted story-telling.

So far, Wolf Hall has been intriguing, if at times slow in pace. Mostly well cast, with clever, sometimes understated dialogue, written by Peter Saughton. It is thoughtfully produced and carefully, yet subtly staged. It is not the most visionary or hard-hitting work, nor is it the best thing I will ever watch on TV, but it is worth taking the time to appreciate and digest the nuance, the writing and the craft that has gone into it.

However, those looking for something that is instantly accessible and demands nothing of its audience would do better to switchover to Midsummer murders.

Sarah McDonald