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“Wolf Hall,” set in 1520, says a lot about television today

Television has spent the last years transforming itself from poor relation to king of
culture. A new adaptation of the novel Wolf Hall tugs together threads from literature,
theatre, television, documentary, and production, saying as much about today’s cultural
values as it does about Tudor England.
The antihero
Wolf Hall is about one of King Henry VIII’s political advisors, Thomas Cromwell ( http://
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2009/nov/05/how-it-must-have-been/ ) (not
Oliver Cromwell, famous for leading a much later revolution). Cromwell is the deeply
likeable dark heart at the centre of two existing books by Hilary Mantel (a third is in the
works ( http://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/books/513984/Hilary-Mantel-shoots-from-the-lip ) ). This character—neither hero nor villain, intelligent, violent,
damaged and skilled—is exactly the kind of hero television series of the last year have
loved. TV’s expansive space—multiple hours rather than the two allotted to films—
allows for an intricate unfolding of character: acts of brutality, tenderness, and
redemption, without apparent contradiction. Think Walter White ( http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/08/27/childs-play-5 ) in Breaking Bad, Mad
Men’s Don Draper ( http://www.salon.com/2012/04/23/where_are_the_heroes/ ) ,

True Detective’s Rusten Cole ( http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/mcconaughey-reveals-the-four-stages-of-true-detective-rustin-cohle-20140304 ) ,
and Sarah Lund ( http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/box-seat/how-tv-got-so-good-20130320-2gfd7.html ) in The Killing. Finding this new archetype is one of the
things that has transformed television, replacing its “lite” image with something much murkier.
The co-producers
The six-part series hits the BBC this week ( http://www.tvwise.co.uk/2014/12/bbc-
two-releases-trailer-wolf-hall/ ) , and US screens on April 5—as a co-production
between the BBC and PBS division Masterpiece ( http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/
masterpiece/programs/features/news/damian-lewis-joins-cast-wolf-hall/ ) , it’s had
American audiences in mind from the start. Masterpiece was also co-producer of
Downton Abbey ( http://www.itv.com/downtonabbey ) , which wooed US viewers with
a prominently-placed American character ( http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/
downtonabbey/season2_characters_cora.html ) . Wolf Hall, set at a time Europe was
only dimly aware of America’s existence, has no such recourse, and will have to rely on
great costumes and marketing.
The material
Hilary Mantel ( http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/culture/2012/10/unquiet-
mind-hilary-mantel ) , author of the books that originated the series, is certain to suck
in viewers. The only person ever to win the Booker Prize more than once, Mantel won
with both Wolf Hall in 2009 and its sequel Bring up the Bodies, which charts Anne
Boleyn’s fall from grace, in 2012. The books sold 1.2 million copies in the UK alone (
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/news/wolf-hall-
hilary-mantels-tudor-tales-spawn-a-lucrative-industry-with-stage-and-tv-
adaptations-9052643.html ) . Before the television adaptation, the UK’s Royal
Shakespeare Company made the first two books into two three-hour plays. A Broadway
transfer ( http://wolfhallbroadway.com/ ) opens in March. Mantel is famous for her
meticulous research and historical accuracy. As well as getting darker, television is
getting much smarter.
The interpretation
Mark Rylance, who plays Thomas Cromwell, is not the most famous actor who might
have filled the role. But he is one of the best ( http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/
magazine/article3326094.ece ) . Rylance is beloved by UK theatre audiences.
Television’s new wave, meanwhile, has given breaks to a series of British actors who are skilled (rather than already
famous). Think Ian McShane ( http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/
true-grit-deadwood-star-ian-mcshane-on-villainous-turns-and-his-days-as-a-
hollywood-hellraiser-8967845.html ) in Deadwood, Dominic West ( http://
http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/09/16/dominic-west-talks-the-wire-movie-
prince-harry-and-why-he-s-opposed-to-scottish-independence.html ) and Idris Elba
( http://www.theguardian.com/film/2009/may/05/television-the-wire-idris-elba-
obsessed ) in The Wire, and Damian Lewis ( http://www.bestdaily.co.uk/television/
news/a621605/homeland-star-damian-lewis-reveals-how-he-prepared-for-bbc-
henry-viii-role.html ) in Homeland (who also plays Henry VII in Wolf Hall).
And finally, the economics
Unlike open-ended series that run to several seasons, Wolf Hall squeezes two long,
subtle novels into six episodes. It still cost £7 million ( http://www.dailymail.co.uk/
tvshowbiz/article-2912524/A-7m-budget-stellar-cast-BBC-s-unmissable-Wolf-Hall-
Greatest-Period-Drama-Made.html ) to make. Cromwell, a cloth merchant as well as a
murderer and a political genius, would understand: Those dresses don’t come cheap.

Author : Cassie Werber

URL : http://qz.com/328215/bbc-series-wolf-hall-set-in-1520-says-a-lot-about-television-today/

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