BBC's Wolf Hall is good drama but not bad history

Forget about The Tudors. A new series captures what it was really like in the era of Henry VIII, writes

BBC's Wolf Hall is good drama but not bad history

FROM sword-fighting lessons to wince-inducing corsets, every effort was made to ensure BBC Two’s upcoming Tudor epic Wolf Hall was as authentic as possible.

But actor Mark Rylance had one issue on the set of the six-part drama, adapted from Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies.

“The codpieces are too small,” says the star, 54, who plays Henry VIII’s closest advisor Thomas Cromwell. “I think it was a directive from our American producers, PBS — they like small codpieces which always seemed to be tucked away.”

The Kent-born actor clarifies that he “wasn’t personally disappointed” by the accessory, worn in Tudor times at the front of men’s breeches and seen as a symbol of virility.

“I’m a bit more used to them than other people, from being at Globe Shakespeare’s Globe [the theatre at which Rylance spent a decade as artistic director]. But I can see for modern audiences, perhaps even more in America, they may not know exactly what’s going on down there.”

For the record, the show’s producers insist there was no “hidden codpiece memo” from either themselves or their US counterparts. But they weren’t the only tricky items the show’s cast had to contend with.

“In the first few weeks, the dresses were magical and amazing,” says Upstairs Downstairs actress Claire Foy, who plays Anne Boleyn, eventual wife of Henry, played by Damian Lewis of Homeland fame.

“But then it gets to July and you’re in a stately home, not able to drink water, sit down, not really able to breathe, and you’re regretting asking for the corset to be so tight in the fitting,” adds the 30-year-old.

Filming took place across the south-west of England, with the action following Cromwell’s meteoric rise from blacksmith’s son to the king’s right-hand-man. (He’s a very distant relative of the notorious Oliver Cromwell of a later era.)

Mark Rylance in Wolf Hall

Along the way, he must deal with the ruthless power struggles of the Tudor court, the upheavals of the Protestant reformation, the king’s turbulent relationship with Boleyn, and her later execution.

“He’s always playing to win; playing to win what he feels will be the most beneficial outcome of the situation,” Rylance says of his character.

“He probably would have been a champion chess player, in that he’s usually seven or eight moves ahead of the other players around him.”

As for why people find the Tudor period so exciting, the actor puts it down to the king’s “very human nature”.“It’s the whole idea of divine kings, or of these rulers who lead us. We’re fascinated, aren’t we?” he continues.“When we find out what was actually going on with Kennedy, or Clinton, or eventually find out what was going on in Obama’s mind, it’s riveting.”

Viewers who conjure up an image of Henry VIII as a rotund, tyrannical ruler might be surprised by the slim and handsome version we meet in Wolf Hall. “I think we all have this understanding that he was this womanising, syphilitic, bloated, genocidal Elvis character,” says Lewis.

“But he had a 32-inch waist and he remained that way for quite a long time. He was the pre-eminent sportsman in his court. He was much taller than anyone else. His beautiful, pale complexion was often remarked upon by commentators.

“And so, what I’ve found in Henry, is that the grandiose, more paranoid, self-indulgent, self-pitying, cruel Henry emerged in the period after this series, actually.”

Foy, meanwhile, found her character more sympathetic than the “cliched Anne Boleyn version” she learnt about in school. Boleyn had originally been supposed to marry her Irish cousin, but eventually ended up being beheaded on the orders of Henry, despite bearing him a daughter who would become Queen Elizabeth I.

“She is this amazingly strong woman living in this man’s world, and she has traditionally got to be seen as hormonal and a bit mad,” says Foy. “I felt a lot of compassion for this woman. She was an incredible character with such spirit and an amazing person to be around, but she was too much of a powerful opponent for Cromwell, so she had to go.”

The execution scene was one of Foy’s favourite to film. “It felt very real, it didn’t feel staged,” she says.

Author Mantel — who also saw Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies adapted for the stage to critical acclaim— was in close contact with screenwriter Peter Straughan, and also visited the set during filming.

“I was staggered by the scale of the enterprise; it was like a royal progress,” she says of the set. “There seemed something very appropriate about the way it lumbered across the English countryside, stopping at the most beautiful houses, bringing its own provisions, feeding and watering itself as it went.”

Mantel says she is delighted with the end result — and pleased that accuracy remained a priority.

“Good drama doesn’t have to mean bad history,” she says. “History is never a convenient shape, it’s true, but if you have the craft and the will to do it, you can find a way to tell a good story without distortion, and find the dramatic shape in real events.”

  • Wolf Hall begins on BBC Two on Wednesday, January 21

More in this section


Did you miss our Virtual Event with Alison O’Connor, Aoife Moore, Clodagh Finn, Derval O’Rourke and Vicky Phelan