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By now, you may have seen Wolf Hall, the production that ran on BBC Two earlier this year; headed by Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis, who left US drama Homeland after series 3, the six-part drama chronicles the life of Thomas Cromwell who started as the son of a blacksmith and became King Henry VIII’s closest adviser.
What many viewers are not aware of is what it took to get the novels to air; screenwriter Peter Straughan had not written anything since the death of his wife and co-writer, Bridget O’Connor, at 49 due to cancer. He told the Telegraph, “I think in the back of my mind there was a possibility that maybe I wasn’t going to be able to write again.” But his creative abilities resurfaced after a year of no writing when Wolf Hall landed on his desk, and he turned a thousand pages into a new BBC production. From writers to actors and even the location shoots, everything managed to come together.
The man the Telegraph called the most moving and intuitive actor in Britain has spent most of his time on stage. In fact, his last television appearance was over ten years ago as Dr. David Kelly in The Government Inspector, a role which won him a BAFTA.
I was like a moth to a candle [to the drama teacher], he told the Telegraph. “I just absolutely needed the theatre so desperately, it was my fate.” But Wolf Halls producer, Colin Callender, wanted Rylance as Cromwell so badly he put production on hold so that the actor could finish his Broadway run of two Globe plays, Richard III and Twelfth Night; he actually took the part because his wife, a fan of Hilary Mantel’s books, told him to.
He sees Cromwell as the ultimate observer of the royal court and of himself saying, “He was part of a business community that wanted to have a Bible that they can read. They don’t want it translated by a foreign power with stuff in it that when they read it in English they find is not there”.They want a truth and a new order and an independence for England from a foreign influence.
Henry VIII was not the person most productions portray him to be, Lewis told the Mirror. “I think we all have this understanding that Henry was this womanising, syphilitic, bloated, genocidal Elvis character,” he said. “But actually the truth is very different. He had a 32 inch waist and remained that way for a long time.”
He noted the king spoke three languages, wrote poetry and was a brilliant jouster and archer; it was only after a jousting injury ended his sporting career combined with a desperate quest for a son and heir that he began to eat and wallow in self pity. Lewis compared Henry VIII to Elvis Presley, saying “He sort-of ended up like Elvis, just growing fat, having been this beautiful, brilliant man, this performer” I think his increasing megalomania and paranoia created more of the monster we’re used to knowing.” For inspiration, the actor drew on modern-day influences such as the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry. “I have actually on occasion found myself thinking about Wills and Harry; wanting to normalise your life as much as possible,” he told the Telegraph.
One of the most central characters has no lines at all. For production, BBC Two chose not to go to a foreign country to film old mansions and castles as many studios do. In cooperation with the National Trust, the crew used six National Trust properties: Montacute House, Barrington Court, Lacock Abbey, Great Chalfield Manor, Chastleton House and Horton Court, while Bristol’s Harbour Walls and Bristol Cathedral also became filming sites.
Although Belgium offered tax incentives, producer Mark Pybus explained, “The advantages of filming in a historic location are massive. It’s more expensive than filming in a studio or abroad, but you don’t get that sense of authenticity that you do in a building like Montacute.” The Trust even prepared a ‘movie map’ to the historic houses and castles that have been used as filming locations for tourists.
Montacute House stood in for Greenwich Palace, Henry VIIIs primary London seat and the site of Anne Boleyn’s arrest during the filming of Wolf Hall. Previously used for filming in The Libertine and Sense and Sensibility and located in southern Somerset, it is considered a classic example of Elizabethan Renaissance architecture. With intricate stonework crafted under the direction of master mason William Arnold, the house was completed in 1601 by Sir Edward Phelips and has a Long Gallery with more than 60 Tudor and Elizabethan portraits.
Combined with the other locations, Wolf Hall has a genuine era-specific feel to it; combined with the acting calibre of Rylance, Lewis and the rest of the cast, it becomes easy to see why the Guardian called it “so compelling that ““ as with Mantels books “you forgot that you knew what must come next, and watched life unspool as if it had never been lived before.”