“You could say the same about me… And you probably do”. That cutting end to a sentence uttered by the Sir Thomas Cromwell of the BBC2 adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” was delivered with such poise and timing by Mark Rylance that it felt like I had listened to an ancient proverb. The scene, which saw Cromwell standing away from the Royal Court and being treated like the town gossip by Jane Boleyn, encapsulates the nature of all politics. It is a good lesson: the person whose nature it is to collude with you demonstrates that the traits of a person who is likely to conspire against you.
Rylance reminds me a little of Brian Cox whenever he was given a role that befitted his true talents. This scene was just one example taken from a drama that seems totally uncompromising in the style it wishes to uphold. The drama honours the trajectory of its tradition and it is probably the best of its kind since “I, Claudius”. However, as I feared when I watched the first episode, audiences that are used to seeing period pieces as lavish melodramas are going to be disappointed. As Michael Hogan put it:
Those expecting a sumptuous glorified soap like Downton Abbey seem to have forgotten that it’s airing on BBC Two, not BBC One – a sign that it’s pitched more as a weighty political drama than a mainstream blockbuster. You might as well get annoyed by The Fall because it’s less sunny than Death in Paradise or The Office for not being Mrs Brown’s Boys.“Hilary Mantel’s novels are hefty grown-up literature and have been faithfully adapted into hefty grown-up TV. Two big, fat Booker Prize winners faithfully translated into six hours of TV. Wolf Hall might not be a crowd-pleaser but it’s still subtly superior fare, graced by great performances and admirable authenticity. It’s demandingly dense but deeply rewarding. As far as I’m concerned, the naysayers should be slung in the Tower to rot.
I don’t like snobbery and I have little issue with “Downton Abbey”, which I generally enjoy. However, Hogan makes a valid point. We are in a new golden age of television drama and a big part of this age is ever more complex characters and detailed storylines. I like seeing matters being pushed in all quarters, especially with shows like “Wolf Hall”. The script shows no desire for historical exposition despite the publicizing of its staunch authenticity. It cares little for titillating us with sex scenes, but never shies away from the sexual politics. The brutality is present – from the young Cromwell’s bloody and merciless beatings from his blacksmith father to the tragic death of his first wife and children to the presence of torture as a tool for justice. However, there is no lingering. They are used to convey a point and little more. My guess is viewership might have dropped even further when we were spared the fall of the axe on Sir Thomas Moore’s defiant neck. This makes the programme less of a spectacle and allows the historical drama to go places it is rarely allowed. The opening titles are enough to place viewer. The rest is up to the cast and direction to get on with the storyline and the essence of the drama. This can only be a good thing for all “genre” shows.
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