Monday, May 4, 2015

Weekend Highlight -- "Wolf Hall"

Photo via here

Have you been watching the PBS television series "Wolf Hall"? I just finished episode three. Based on Hilary Mantel's two Booker Prize-winning novels about Thomas Cromwell, this series has been riveting. After seeing the plays in London last fall, I wasn't sure what to expect. I wondered how anything on television could be as good as those plays. (Go here to read more) I was wrong. What I had forgotten to factor in was the time element; with many hours to tell the story, a televised series would be more like reading the novels. Leisurely and detailed, it has the time to build up the story in a thorough and novelistic way. It also manages to feel like a contemporary political thriller. Sunday nights at "Wolf Hall" have become the highlight of the weekend.

With six episodes to sustain the narrative, create a mood, paint each beautiful scene, develop characters and prolong suspense, this television show has created a world that is complex and deep. It doesn't hurt that there is also brilliant acting, stunning medieval Tudor locations, gorgeous costumes, haunting music and masterful direction. Have you noticed how certain scenes look like a painting from the 17th century? There was a recent scene involving the sister of Cromwell's late wife sitting and sewing at a table next to a window. It looked like a painting by Holbein. The cast is fabulous, with Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell and Damien Lewis as King Henry VIII. And the pivotal female characters are played by some very talented actresses.

Speaking of these actresses, I saw a piece in "Harper's Bazaar UK" a couple of months ago about "Wolf Hall" and its female characters. It was fun to see them looking so glamorous (see photo above). They are Charity Wakefield (Mary Boleyn), Kate Phillips (Jane Seymour) , Claire Foy (Anne Boleyn) and Joanne Whalley (Catherine of Aragon). Here are a few highlights from this fascinating article:

A few years ago Hilary Mantel signed a contract with her publisher to write two books: a modern novel set in Africa, and a Tudor novel set in the court of Henry VIII. She had been working on the African novel when she decided to take a day off and play with the Tudor idea. She wrote a line of dialogue and that was it. She was delighted. She had captured her central character. Not Henry but Thomas Cromwell. He would be her leading man. She had found his voice and she was off. Wolf Hall was born.

After finishing its sequel Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel was anxious to begin the final book in the trilogy and planned to devote 2013 to writing it. However, things didn't quite work out that way. Many good things got in the way. She won the Booker Prize for the second time, the first woman and the first British writer to do so. Then there were the plays, to be followed by the television adaptation. She was in constant demand. Now she is anxious to finish the third and final book and is at peace with letting go of Cromwell. She is confident that he will live on in her readers' imaginations.

Regarding the women of "Wolf Hall," the actress Joanne Whalley, who plays Catherine of Aragon, said "You don't automatically think of them. History has been dominated by the narrative of kings and politicians, but these women had their own kind of power; they were fascinating characters who functioned within such restraints." Anne Boleyn is the most fascinating and seems to be a woman who understands her value and plays it for all it is worth. She is cool and calculating about her goals and Thomas Cromwell seems to admire her for it. They are equals in intelligence and ambition. Go here to read more.

I would love to know:

Are you watching the television series?
Did you see the plays?
Have you read the books?

Aren't we lucky to have such excellent television on PBS!


  1. I have them all recorded to watch. When it gets too hot to go outside during the day I'll watch them. Glad to hear the series is good. I taped Grantchester too and still need to watch it.

  2. I felt bereft when it finished; like you, I thought the TV series was even better than the stage version. Now I'm looking forward to 1864; Scandi-history as a change from Scandi-noir.

  3. Forgot to say, there's also a Bloomsbury series coming up called Life in Squares - a Swedish director, I think, which should be interesting. It sounds your kind of thing!

  4. Our best production ever! The authentic lighting candles/fire/windows added to the atmosphere.Have read the books,did not see the play.Enjoyed a talk given by Mark Rylance about how he went about playing his part,the way he used his eyes was brilliant.

  5. I haven't read the books, seen the plays, or started the television series, but I think I'll start watching it soon - sounds great.

  6. This series demonstrates so well why I love PBS. I am definitely a fan.

  7. As you can imagine, I am enthralled with this series, as I was with the books. It captures the feel of the books so well, I think. Setting the oft dramatized court of Henry VIII in a more quotidian fashion has brought it to such life. And this photo of the women! Gorgeous!

  8. Of course I am watching Wolf Hall! I have been a fan since reading the first novel. This is history in a new perspective. I really want to go to NY and see the plays. So glad you got to see them in London.