ADAPTING crime novels for TV is a notoriously hit-or-miss business. With a fraction of the space a book can give to fleshing out suspects and setting up false trails, perhaps having to condense several hundred pages into an hour of drama, the results can come across as shallow.
Tomorrow, BBC1, 8:30pm
The Last Days Of Anne Boleyn
Thursday, BBC2, 9pm
Henry VIII’s Enforcer: The rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell
Friday, BBC2, 9pm
Certain things are interesting on the page, but don’t come across well on screen. One of those, unfortunately, is a rather key element of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books. First adapted as Case Histories two years ago, I wasn’t sure that the Edinburgh series worked. One episode into its return, I’m still not.
Atkinson’s books revel in metafictional tricks, parallels and coincidences. They may not be to everyone’s taste, but they’re deliberate. Yet on screen, with the rushed pace, they come across as just inadvertent clichés. For instance, in this first episode, based on Started Early, Took My Dog, private investigator Brodie finds he apparently has a doppelgänger, which in the book raises questions of identity and different choices in life and so on. On TV, it just seems like a pointless, random coincidence that he meets someone with a similar name.
But then again, casting can do a lot. One of the book’s main characters, a retired police officer called Tracey, does something early on in the story which seems to be a truly terrible idea yet is presented as perfectly alright. In the TV version, though, she’s played by Victoria Wood, whose inherent trustworthiness makes you more or less accept it. Another major character who takes up about a third of the book, but plays no real role in the plot, has been briskly and sensibly cut out.
Jason Isaacs as Brodie is very watchable too: craggy and moody enough to convince as the loner detective, but normal enough to make it believable when his ex calls him “boring”. And stalwarts Maurice Roeves, Annie Louise Ross and James Cosmo do marvels with smaller roles.
So overall the plot works better as a mystery, but that’s probably not what fans of Kate Atkinson’s books really enjoy about them. And, given that British TV is hardly suffering for lack of detective series, what was the point of adapting them then?
Speaking of book adaptations, later this year the BBC’s version of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall will go into production, starring Mark Rylance as the wily mediaeval Alastair Campbell to Henry VIII. It is much anticipated by fans of the book and by those hoping it will help them pretend they read the whole 672 pages.
Till then, those awkwardly finding excuses not to attend their book club meetings can make do with two historical documentaries on the period this week, which cover the same ground if not quite in the same literary style. And in fact, Mantel turns up in one, The Last Days Of Anne Boleyn, which sets out to ask: “Who was the real Anne Boleyn and why did Henry have her killed?”
But it doesn’t offer any answers, or even consensus, as to whether she was really cuckolding the king and if not, why he suddenly turned against her after turning the country’s religion upside down to be able to marry her. The historians and historical novelists who tell the story here seem to agree on very little beyond the basic facts, which they each interpret very differently.
“The evidence strongly suggests that [Thomas] Cromwell had Anne framed and he’s the guilty party,” says one. “She’s a victim of a husband who decides to kill her,” says another. “I don’t think it does any favours to Anne to cast her as a victim. She was a woman who chose to step into the tough political game. She made her calculations, she played a winning hand, ultimately she lost,” says Mantel, but just because she and David Starkey are the most familiar voices here, doesn’t mean either of their views are necessarily correct. As the documentary’s voiceover admits, “When it comes to the mystery of Anne Boleyn’s fall, there’s just enough evidence to keep historians guessing, but just enough gaps to make sure they can never finally get to the solution.”
Now, that’s not a fault, because it’s part of the fascination of studying history: that even when all the possible documents and details have been found, we still can’t always definitively explain everyone’s motives. But it does make this programme a bit head-spinny, as without deep background knowledge of the players concerned, it’s hard to make one’s own judgement. Not that it’s not fun to try.
Henry VIII’s Enforcer: The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell takes a more decided line, being the product of just one historian, Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch. He’s here to defend Cromwell: though many see him as “one of the nastiest people ever to hold power in England,” he says, “I don’t think Cromwell’s dark reputation is justified – certainly it’s not the whole story.”
MacCulloch argues that the lead character of Wolf Hall was both patriotic and a devout Evangelical, who worked steadily to ensure the split with Rome stayed split. And, while hardly a parliamentary democrat, he laid the groundwork to make a constitutional monarchy happen. As for the Anne Boleyn issue, that’s rather overshadowed by MacCulloch’s odd pronunciation of her name as “Bollin” (rather than Bow-lynn). It may be more historically accurate, but sounds so startling that it threw me off what he was actually saying about her and all I could hear was “Bollin Bollin Bollin”!