A well-heeled crowd turned out in London Wednesday night to preview the first episode of Wolf Hall, the BBC’s classy new adaptation of the Hilary Mantel novel and its sequel Bring Up The Bodies. The cultural elite of the city has been awash in the Booker Prize-winning revisionist history in recent months, thanks to the novels’ ubiquity and this summer’s sold-out stage adaptations put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The upcoming miniseries is a Company Pictures and Playground co-production for BBC Two and Masterpiece. It charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell from lowly blacksmith’s son to the closest advisor of Tudor king Henry VIII.
The six-parter comes with a cast of highest-order thesps including Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis and Claire Foy, all three of whom joined a panel after the screening at the Ham Yard Hotel that also included executive producer Colin Callender, director Peter Kosminsky and writer Peter Straughan.
An appearance by BBC Director General Tony Hall, introing the evening, was proof of the broadcaster’s commitment to high-end drama. “It’s a special time for drama on the BBC,” Hall announced, with shows like The Fall and The Missing “really showcasing what the UK can do.” Kosminsky noted in his intro that Hall had visited the set of Wolf Hall during production. “I’ve been making television programs for 35 years and I’ve never known a chief executive of a broadcaster to come and visit a crew on location.”
Kosminsky said his approach to shooting Wolf Hall favored handheld cameras and natural light, which he hopes bring a documentary feel to Mantel’s novels. The author couldn’t attend, but sent quotes ahead to say she’s pleased with this decision. “[Peter] is a political animal, as I am, with a style of filmmaking that is often documentary in tone,” Mantel noted. “He knows how politics play in human terms… Like Peter Straughan, he doesn’t patronize the characters, or think they’re cute because they’re Tudor.”
Shooting digital with the Alexa camera allowed DP Gavin Finney to light even nighttime shots by practical candlelight, and this further drive for authenticity in the environment saw the production move back to England after pondering a shoot in Bruges. “There were tax advantages to shooting in Belgium originally,” said Callender. “But when the [high-en UK TV Tax Credit] came into play it allowed us to shoot back here, and that was unequivocally one of the great plusses of the production, to shoot here at all those National Trust locations.”
The actors were particularly pleased to be working in the very same environments their characters had actually lived. But Rylance, who’s next playing the title role in Steven Spielberg’s The BFG, noted that this authenticity wasn’t always welcome. “The costumes took a while to put on and off, and it was a hot summer,” he said. “But mostly I think the codpieces are just too small. I think that was a directive from our American producers, PBS. They wanted smaller codpieces.”
The actors noted the challenges of scenes involving death — of their characters or others — and Foy confessed she particularly struggled with Anne Boleyn’s execution. Rylance related a tale from his time on 2008’s The Other Boleyn Girl. Test audiences, he said, had fed back that they’d hated the scene in which Boleyn was executed. “Apparently at a producers’ meeting, one of the producers said, ‘Wait a minute… Does she have to die? Why can’t he just give her a holiday home down the coast?’”
Lewis, who arrived late and in black-tie from a prior engagement, countered suggestions that he might have needed to pile on pounds to play Henry VIII. “He actually had a 34-inch waist and was the preeminent jouster, hunter and sportsman of his generation,” Lewis said. “He remained slim and a formidable athlete long into his late thirties.”
The six-part series will air on BBC Two in the New Year with a U.S. airdate set for April 5th.