Dani Garavelli: Is Henry VIII series well executed?

NOT since 18 September has the country stood so divided. On the one side are those who are counting down the minutes to 9pm on Wednesday, the start of what we anticipate will be the greatest televisual event of the decade; on the other are those who are sniffily tutting: “Oh no, not another blinking costume drama.”
Claire Foy plays Anne Boleyn and Damian Lewis plays King Henry VIII in BBC2s adaptation of Hilary Mantels Booker Prize-­winning book Wolf Hall. Picture: BBCClaire Foy plays Anne Boleyn and Damian Lewis plays King Henry VIII in BBC2s adaptation of Hilary Mantels Booker Prize-­winning book Wolf Hall. Picture: BBC
Claire Foy plays Anne Boleyn and Damian Lewis plays King Henry VIII in BBC2s adaptation of Hilary Mantels Booker Prize-­winning book Wolf Hall. Picture: BBC

Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-­winning books Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies have that effect on people. You’re either for or against, an evangelist or a nay-sayer (although some of the nay-sayers haven’t read them and are merely trying to demonstrate they don’t follow the cultural herd).

The true haters complain about her repeated (and confusing) use of the pronoun “he” and her “muddled” syntax. The lovers – and there are millions of us – rave about the way she portrays life under Henry VIII, not with the historian’s gift of hindsight, but as it must have been lived, precariously, day to day, in the shadow of the executioner’s block and with no idea how it would all turn out. For her fans, Mantel’s books are a tour-de-force and every grammatical quirk merely further evidence of her genius. It’s no mean feat to tell a story as complex as hers obliquely, through the eyes of one man, even when that man is Thomas Cromwell. Nor to transform Cromwell from a caricature of evil, as seen in Hans Holbein’s portrait and Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons, to a fully fleshed out ­human being, both conniving and likeable, whose motives we understand even if we don’t always approve.

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So there we have it. When it comes to BBC2’s adaptation, I’m not an impartial observer. Like many others, I have spent the past few days juggling conflicting emotions of excitement, trepidation and puzzlement over why the channel would show something so prestigious on a school night.

Seeing books you love transferred to screen is always nerve-racking and the hype merely ups the ante. I know the script by Peter Straughan is supposed to be brilliant – the best the director Peter Kosminsky has ever read – the casting sensitive (Mark Rylance, who plays Cromwell, is known for his roles in political dramas) and the attention to detail unparalleled (the costumes have been made without recourse to sewing machines or Velcro and the candles are made of tallow) but is it possible a TV drama, with its eye on a mainstream audience, can have resisted the urge to dumb down, especially given Mantel’s work is challenging for anyone who is not a professor of history? The stakes are high; not only will a lapse into Reformation Hollyoaks territory, a la The Tudors, tarnish our memories of her books forever (I speak as one still traumatised by the aberration that was The Cat In The Hat), it will take away from the thrill of buying the third – The Mirror And The Light – which *spoiler alert* will chronicle Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne of Cleves and the events leading up to Cromwell’s execution.

One positive sign is that Mantel seems satisfied, though it’s even harder to live up to the writer’s vision than the reader’s. PL Travers hated Mary Poppins, Stephen King hated The Shining, Truman Capote hated Breakfast At Tiffany’s, but the difficult-to-please Mantel said the series remains true to the books’ spirit. It had not, she promised, reduced the story to a series of clichés and over-simplifications. Not all viewers will understand all the references, “but what pleasure for those of us who do,” she gushed, with a dash of intellectual superiority. That’s one of the things I like about Mantel: her refusal to be self-deferential or overly accommodating. She knows she’s good, so why shouldn’t BBC2 produce something that reflects her worth?

Those who don’t understand the obsession with Henry VIII in general or with Mantel’s books in particular, but who face having the TV series inflicted on them by a family member, should try to see it as a 16th century West Wing or House Of Cards. The historical context might be different – although the hijacking of a religion or ideology for political purposes could scarcely be more relevant – but the scheming and smearing are all too familiar. As Mantel pointed out last year in a piece for the London ­Review Of Books, royal brides are still seen as little more than vessels in which to grow royal heirs (even if gender of said heirs is no longer an issue). As for Cromwell, his hauled-himself-up-by-the-boot-straps chippiness is recognisable to anyone who has watched The Apprentice and his mastery of the dark arts as applicable to the Palace of Westminster as Hampton Court.

If Wolf Hall isn’t successful, it won’t be for lack of effort. The cast seems to have understood the burden of expectation the series carries and to have given great thought to the psychology of their characters, a task made more difficult by the fact that – in the books – they are viewed only through the prism of Cromwell’s prejudices. Much emphasis has also been placed on authenticity, with hours spent debating whether or not Sir Thomas More would have used a spoon (back then, spoons were a luxury).

So it’s not impossible it will be what all fans hope for and more. There are, after all, good TV and film adaptations as well as bad ones: To Kill A Mockingbird, The Godfather, Sophie’s Choice to name but three. Even putatively unadaptable books such as Trainspotting can – in the right hands – become cinematic triumphs. In that spirit, let’s carve the peacock and crack open the mead. Only three more nights until the revelry and routing begins.