Last week saw my first trip out of the house on my own since August. Freedom at last! What better way to get back in to the London culture scene than with a preview of the upcoming BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies at the BFI (thanks to @Ruther2 for my ticket). The BBC’s six-part drama begins later this month and after watching the first two episodes, I was certainly impressed. The cast is first-class, led by the truly brilliant Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who rises to become one of the most powerful men in the country. Rylance never fails to impress, most recently through his stage work (Jerusalem, La Bete, Richard III and Twelfth Night were all superb) and that he is so able to play such an eclectic range of characters is a testament to how great an actor he is. His Cromwell may not have come across as as witty as Ben Miles’ performance on stage at the RSC, but he has an intensity about him that is bound to grow through the episodes – Cromwell is always observing, thinking, planning and this is always clear from Rylance’s portrayal. He also has a touching relationship with Jonathan Pryce’s Cardinal Wolsey, the master he stands by until his fall in 1529.
Other notable performances from the first two episodes were Claire Foy’s Anne Boleyn, Mark Gatiss as Stephen Gardiner, Charity Wakefield as a playful and strong Mary Boleyn and Thomas Brodie Sangster as Rafe, Cromwell’s loyal ward. We didn’t get to see too much of Damian Lewis’s interpretation of King Henry VIII in these early episodes, but he seemed very promising, not only a younger, more athletic figure, but also one who still carries a gravitas and power that makes you know he should not be crossed. I have owned the novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies for years and always intended to read them, especially so after seeing the stage productions last year in Stratford-Upon-Avon, which I thoroughly enjoyed. However it was only after going to this preview that I finally picked up Wolf Hall, which I have just finished. The BBC drama is very faithful to the novel, with lines of dialogue and scenes instantly recognisable to me as being identical. It’s impressive to see how such a detailed novel has been adapted so perfectly for the screen by Peter Straughan. They are books that contain so much detail and description that as a reader you need to commit to them in order to be swept up in the sumptuous, yet murky world of Henry’s court and it’s fantastic that Straughan’s scripts have not strayed from the example set by Mantel in her work. There are some scenes and moments that are moved around slightly, so that they occur earlier or later than in the book, but you can understand why each of these choices was made, in order to keep the pace of the screen version and I don’t think any such choices are at the detriment of the original books.
I also thoroughly enjoyed Mike Poulton’s stage adaptations for the RSC (soon to transfer to Broadway), which I found to be fast paced, modern and funnier than I’d expected. Comparing this to the television version, I’d say that the stage one seems to be faster paced, which makes sense when you have create the world for a live performance in three hours, through which Cromwell can speak directly to the audience. This direct rapport also opened the door more for humour to come across, particularly from Cromwell. As with the novels, the series cannot do this directly and so more is dependent of Rylance’s skill at conveying his thoughts through a look and his eyes, something he is more than capable of achieving. As for the production itself, it is of a level of quality we expect from a BBC period drama – beautiful locations and costumes, wonderful music by Debbie Wiseman, which feels authentic, yet contemporary and superbly shot – the scenes you think seem to be lit just by candlelight really are exactly that, which lends the production an added layer of realism. There is one scene in which Cromwell talks with his sister-in-law as she puts out the candles around the room – as each is distinguished the room grows darker until only one remains. Touches like this truly impressed me and you can understand that a great deal of preparation and skill has been invested by the crew and director Peter Kosminsky in order to film the series this way. I also loved the hand held camera style for certain scenes, which allows the audience to be always seeing the events from Cromwell’s perspective. This again makes the characters feel very much alive.
I am incredibly excited to see the remaining four episodes of this wonderful series and cannot recommend it highly enough. The opening episode may feel a little slow to some people, but I would urge you to stick with it, as you are soon drawn in to the drama and intrigue of a world that really did exist 500 years ago and in to events that had a lasting impact on our country. This is due to a superb combination of top quality acting performances from some of the country’s best talents, a faithful and perfectly paced screenplay, sumptuous costumes, locations and music and the brilliant choice of filming style so that, as an audience you really are following in Cromwell’s footsteps as he navigates this dangerous world of Tudor England. Panel and Q&A following the screening After the screening we were treated to a Q&A with director Peter Kosminsky, composer Debbie Wiseman, actress Claire Foy (Anne Bolyen) and Hilary Mantel herself.
What did Hilary Mantel think of the adaptation? Mantel was full of praise for the series, calling it sumptuous and saying that she had fallen into her own story while watching it. She does not refer to it as an adaptation however, as she feels such a word sounds like a compromise. This is not an adaptation, but the material in a different medium and she was very proud. What was the director’s approach to the series? Peter Kosminsky talked about how the characters think they are us. They don’t know that they are in fact in history, so it was important to create a world that felt real and contemporary, so that the characters are living in the moment. He also spoke of how closely Peter Straughan worked with Mantel on the screenplay and how important it was to cast the right people in order make the production feel real. The importance of the director of photography’s role and that of the camera operator was also mentioned, in order to give the series its documentary style, which makes the audience experience the events with Cromwell as they happen. What was it like playing Anne Boleyn? Claire Foy spoke of how much she’d enjoyed the books when she’d read them, but that she’d felt dread when it was suggested she should audition, as she was sure she was nothing like the Anne she had read about in the books. She was amazed that Peter wanted her to play the role and also agreed that there is more of a responsibility playing someone who lived. Peter Kosminsky explained that he’d thought Claire would be perfect for Anne, as he knew from working with her before that she could portray the nastier side of Anne, but still break your heart at the end. He knew she wouldn’t need to “soft sell” Anne.
Music process and cliches and music? This is Debbie Wiseman’s sixth collaboration with Peter Kosminsky and she talked about how early she was involved in the process. The music in fact had a life before the filming began, with themes such as Cromwell’s theme and Anne’s them existing in an initial form from the beginning, which meant that demos could be taken on set and used, which does not normally happen. Later in the evening she was also asked about whether there were any period cliches that had arisen when creating the score. Debbie talked about the influence of Tudor instruments, some of which were used, including the lute and viol, but also that there had been a desire for the music to have a contemporary feel, so the music aims to look forwards as well as backwards. Did Mark Rylance’s performance provide new insight in to the world for Mantel? Through working on this drama series and the stage production, Hilary Mantel said there are themes that linger and that each process feeds in to the other and also in to the third and final book, which is still a live process for her. To be called “The Mirror and the Light” Mantel explained that the final novel will cast light on what has gone before and see events from a different angle, while also filling in some of the gaps. She was incredibly enthusiastic about how wonderful it is to have people to co-imagine with you and that through the stage and screen processes she has had more such co-imaginers to help her create the world. Filming process? The director referred to the use of filming by candlelight and Claire Foy stressed how dark it was when filming certain scenes, during which they were amazed the cameras were actually able to see more than the cast and crew could due to the darkness! They were also terrified of someone catching fire (a risk that Mantel said was a very real one for those living at that time). Five cameras and five lenses in different configurations were tested before filming began in order to ensure the very best equipment was chosen. The candlelight was an important element for the production, especially as they were filming in real period locations, which were built and designed to be lit that way. Mantel also agreed with its importance, saying that it does something to your imagination when just in candlelight. Claire and Peter also reminisced about the comedic scene of having to film at Penshurst Place in Kent, due to the requirement on the crew to pause filming every 20 minutes in order for tourists to walk through on tours! The language of Wolf Hall? On being asked about writing the novels and the language used, Mantel referred to George Cavendish’s biography of Cardinal Wolsey, as it was from this source material that she found the idiom for her novels. At the time, when the people communicated it would have been clear to them and so it was important for her to have a living, speakable idiom. Therefore the novels are written in modern English, but slightly sideways, for example, with syntax different from everyday English used today. She also agreed that Peter Straughan’s adaptation is very faithful to the novels. The third book and the challenging nature of the material for its audience? On being asked if they would film the third book, both Peter and Hilary said that would be wonderful but Mantel needs to finish writing it first! Mantel was also asked how much of a hit she thought the series would be on television, due to the fact that, like the novels, the audience has to work for it. Mantel agreed that the dialogue takes no prisoners and that there would have been no point dumbing it down for the series as you could never pitch it right for everyone. She felt it was important to do it with honesty and integrity and then hope to carry the audience with you, as she wants them to be co-imaginers too, as writing is not a two dimensional process. Is this the golden age of television? On being asked by the audience whether this was a new era of a higher art for television, Peter Kosminsky said that there are new challenges and opportunities now, for example a greater number of channels, but less viewers watching a programme than when there were only four channels. He also spoke of how big development budgets were no longer there, so he didn’t see it as a golden age, as you have to fight for budget and to keep something relevant and real. Wolf Hall begins on Wednesday 21st January on BBC Two at 9 p.m. and you can watch the trailer here. Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies can be purchased at all the usual book stockists.