TV drama adaptations: High art or low figures?

The TV-adaptation of Mantel’s novels excelled, but steadily lost viewing figures,, writes Richard Fitzpatrick.

TV drama adaptations: High art or low figures?

The guillotine fell last Wednesday night on the final episode of Wolf Hall, the TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning historical novels.

The BBC decided to condense her two novels — Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies — into six hours of drama. It delivered a fine effort although dwindling audience figures — it lost a third of its viewers by episode four — brought the broadcaster some criticism.

Boring, cried some, especially compared to predecessors such as the “sex and sandals” epic Rome .

“It might help if everyone wore name badges,” tweeted one perplexed viewer. In fairness, the complexity of the TV version is nothing to the byzantine plotlines of the novels’ thousand pages by Mantel, who, tellingly, has given the adaptation her seal of approval. The list of characters of Wolf Hall, which was published in 2009, runs to five pages.

A TV critic from The Guardian, referencing a comment made by the playwright Tom Stoppard, suggests modern audiences might be too dumb to follow such demanding storylines. Ridiculous. Look at how popular The Wire is.

Or to paraphrase essayist and commentator, Malcolm Gladwell, who was responding to a suggestion that people’s attention spans are becoming shorter: “Thirty years ago, you could go and get a sandwich in the middle of a Kojak episode, come back and still follow it. Today, if you get a glass of water in the middle of Homeland you have to pause and go back.”

The naturalistic style of the mini-series, which uses muted colours and feels more theatrical than cinematic, has put certain viewers off.

Mark Rylance, known more for his Shakespearean theatre work than film, plays the lead character, Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s “monstrous servant”. He invariably appears in darkened rooms at night or in daytime, his face half-covered by a Tudor bonnet. The heavy fall of footsteps on flagstones and the distant, crackling sound of fires burning in rooms are the show’s pervasive sounds, as it would have been in Tudor times.

The series excels at re-creating what life must have been like in the sixteenth century. There wasn’t much to romanticise. It was an age when King Henry VIII’s courtiers were sandwiched between the Black Death and London’s Great Plague, something intimated at by the dramatic death in an early episode of Cromwell’s wife and two daughters, felled by a mysterious “sweating sickness”.

So many customs lost — the curtseying, the parading of a lady around by an arched hand to her next meeting and the gorging of food by hand. Death by burning at the stake, too, a fate that befell the lawyer, James Bainham, is shocking nowadays, (as seen in recent events), but more commonplace then. Seeing it on screen makes you realise what a horrible death it must have been.

Henry VIII, of course, was responsible for a lot of death, not least amongst those who orbited his love life, including his erstwhile confidant, the blubbering Cardinal Wolsey, played by Jonathan Pryce. Damian Lewis, who is known for playing Agent Brody in Homeland, was a revelation, a scene-stealer, in the role of King Henry VIII.

Lewis has the physical aspects that lend him to an easy portrayal of the young King Henry VIII — red hair, tall, commanding presence and a dead ringer when he puts his hands fanning out from his waist like the familiar, iconic portraits of the old monarch.

It’s the occasional charm and the childish temper that captures what the man must have been like, though. On hearing that his first, discarded wife, Catherine of Aragon, has died, he’s indifferent.

“We will lay her to rest in Peterborough. It will cost less,” he says. “She sent me a letter. Get rid of it, will you? I don’t want it.”

Bernard Hill as the cantankerous Duke of Norfolk has a lot of the best lines, but it is his niece, Anne Boleyn, played by Claire Foy, who is the more interesting character. As Thomas Cromwell ponders to himself in Mantel’s opening novel of her trilogy:

“Anne is not a carnal being, she is a calculating being, with a cold, slick brain at work behind her hungry black eyes.” She makes a wonderful enemy for Cromwell, who she purposefully calls “Cremuel” in a heavy French accent when ordering him about.

And who would have thought Jane Seymour, played by a wan-looking Kate Phillips, could be so cunning? There is a lovely nuance to the way she evolves in Mantel’s novels, which inevitably isn’t fully afforded in the screen version.

“This is a plain young woman with a silvery pallor, a habit of silence,” she writes, “and a trick of looking at men as if they represent an unpleasant surprise.”

She catches Cromwell’s eye, as well as the king’s, where there can be only one winner. The king loves Cromwell because of his multitude of skills, but chiefly as a fixer.

“He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.”

If there is a bum note in the TV adaptation, it is in the sympathetic portrayal of Cromwell. There’s something lacking in the way Rylance’s Cromwell gets his business done.

He is watchful and tender to his children. He knows how to manipulate people and to work his legendary network of spies. There is no sense, though, of how brutal he could be. The historical Cromwell was a man of gruesome cruelty, who tortured his enemies. According to historians, he used to starve and disembowel monks who refused to bend the knee to King Henry VIII as the imposed head of their church. Mantel does a better job than the condensed TV adaptation, of bringing out this aspect of his character.

“Once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise”, he voices at one stage in her second novel, “once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect.

"Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand”.

Perhaps we will see more of this side to Cromwell in the sequel, if there is one. Mantel has been contracted to write a third volume, entitled The Mirror and the Light, but her publishers Fourth Estate say it won’t appear this year.

BBC would love to run a second series but, says its press department, “we have nothing official to announce as yet”.

The indeterminacy wouldn’t faze Cromwell. He was adept at dealing in uncertainties.

Top 5 TV drama adaptations

1 Brideshead Revisited

The 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited was a masterpiece, and shot its star Jeremy Irons to prominence. The pace was slow, but intentionally so, as it perfectly captured the listless existence of Britain’s nobility and captured a moment – the interwar years – in which the sun was starting to set on the British Empire.

2 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The BBC made a fine fist of adapting John Le Carré’s definitive cold war novel. It captures well the strange, shape-shifting world of spies – their paranoia, the futility of a lot of their existences, where it’s often difficult to see the differences between sides, and Alec Guinness in the lead role as George Smiley is predictably brilliant.

3 Strumpet City

The drama department at RTÉ comes in for a lot of criticism but in adapting James Plunkett’s Strumpet City in 1980 it delivered a classic of the genre. Hugh Leonard was the pen for hire while all the greats of Irish acting were rolled out, including Cyril Cusack, Donal McCann, David Kelly in a memorable turn as “Rashers Tierney and Peter O’Toole as Big Jim Larkin.

4. Inspector Morse

There are many fine TV crime series, not least last year’s True Detective, but the adaptation of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse detective novels stand alone. The 33 episodes ran from 1987 to 2000. Oxford provided an usual setting for grisly murder, but was easy on the eye and John Thaw as the grumpy, cultured gumshoe was a marvel.

5. House of Cards (UK version)

Kevin Spacey as the scheming, cold-blooded Frank Underwood in Netflix’s version of House of Cards is captivating. If you haven’t seen it already can you imagine how good Ian Richardson was as Francis Urquhart in the original TV adaptation of the Michael Dobbs novel? He was the very essence of a Machiavellian manipulator, and all the more compelling as the BBC mini-series aired just as Margaret Thatcher’s reign was coming to an end in 1990.

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