Accuracy is king in the most eagerly anticipated TV event of the year… but how does Wolf Hall stand up to the scrutiny of one historian?
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By Lucy Worsely
His Tudor costume weighs a ton, held together by a complex arrangement of pins; there are no sewing-machine seams, zips or modern fastenings to simplify the laborious chore of dressing.
Yet Homeland star Damian Lewis is not only comfortable in King Henry VIII’s velvet robes, but is alarmed – and delighted – to discover character traits he shares with England’s most famous king.
Like Henry, he suffered concussion after an accident – though he tumbled from a motorbike, rather than from a steed during a vigorous bout of jousting.
I was intrigued to find Lewis shared the latest historical theory that the accident may have triggered great change in the monarch and led to his descent into tyranny and darkness.
‘I’ve suffered from concussion myself from a motorbike crash,’ he explains.
‘I spent three months afterwards getting into needless fights and suffering from bouts of depression, unable to watch TV or read because of migraines.
‘I would often not get dressed and just do puzzles in my flat.
‘So I think it’s absolutely plausible that it had an effect on Henry’s character.’
He adds: ‘I think we all have an understanding that Henry was a womanising, syphilitic, bloated, genocidal Elvis character.
‘But in the period I play him he had a 32in waist and was much taller than anyone else. His beautiful pale complexion was often remarked on.
‘I found that the grandiose, more paranoid, self-indulgent, self-pitying, cruel Henry emerged in the period after this.’
Lewis is playing King Henry in Wolf Hall, the ambitious six-part BBC television series based on Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. The programme will be screened on BBC2 this month.
After the success of the books, and the smash-hit stage play with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the stellar cast (with the likes of Mark Rylance, Claire Foy and Jonathan Pryce alongside Lewis) has made the TV production the most talked-about BBC drama in decades.
On the day I have exclusive access to the set and actors, at Bristol Cathedral (one of 40 locations selected for filming), they are shooting the coronation of a heavily pregnant Anne Boleyn (played by Claire Foy).
Of Boleyn, Foy says: ‘I think she was born at the wrong time. She was really a modern woman who believed that she could rise above where she was born.
‘She didn’t see any restrictions on what her opinions should be, or what she could read. She was incredibly intelligent, especially about herself, what her charms were and weren’t.
‘She was obviously an incredible character with such spirit, but she was just that bit too much of a powerful opponent for Cromwell, so she had to go.’
There are 16 make-up artists among the production team of 80, and disarray is caused by the constant doffing of caps (there are eight minutes of cap-doffing in the entire series).
About 70 per cent of the cast are wearing either wigs or hairpieces, and the constant Tudor on-and-off takes its toll on them.
Also present are 74 courtiers, six bishops, six knights and four royal guards. (And still they don’t fill the cathedral.)
Foy reveals that the ‘baby bump’ is uncomfortable under her costume, and isn’t sure how to ‘prostrate’ herself to the ground before the altar.
With his customary attention to detail, director Peter Kosminsky asks me, as a historian, how she should do it.
We agree that two of Anne’s ladies in waiting should help their pregnant mistress down to the floor.
What is already clear to me is that this is an astonishingly ambitious production. The number of National Trust houses used for filming alone (six in total) is a record for any TV drama series.
There is Montacute House in Somerset as the set for Greenwich Palace, Henry VIII’s London seat; Barrington Court in Somerset stands in for the interior of York Place; Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire features in exterior shots for the Seymour family seat; and Chastleton House, Oxfordshire, provides the setting for one of the most visceral scenes, where a young Cromwell is kicked viciously by his father.
Penshurst Place, in Kent, also used for York Place (later Whitehall Palace) really did receive Henry VIII as a visitor.
It would have been cheaper and easier to use a studio – or film, as originally considered, in Belgium – but this would have compromised the authenticity and reality so evident in the series.
Still, as designer Pat Campbell explains, it is not the big set-pieces – the jousting, Anne’s execution, or a masque featuring ‘the mouth of Hell’ – that have given her the headaches, but the nitty-gritty detail of daily life; an area where the rather silly Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ version of The Tudors spectacularly failed. (I laughed out loud when I saw Cardinal Wolsey’s pomander in that show, because it looked like a fruit salad.)
The series also contained the famous (and documented) scene in which Catherine Howard tries out the block for size on the night before her execution. Only in The Tudors, though, did she do so naked.
Oh, and that series also showed Anne’s coronation, but complete with a fictional assassination attempt. No such historical liberties are taken with Wolf Hall.
‘Bigger things are easier,’ Campbell says, ‘than little things like a completely accurate pen.’
A handful of actors had to be stopped from writing with their left hands, as this was banned at court.
‘It was terrifying at first,’ she says. ‘How did they sleep, how did they put their shoes on?’
She admits BBC history documentaries such as social historian and re-enactor Ruth Goodman’s Tudor Monastery Farm have been playing in the background of her trailer on a loop.
Producer Mark Pybus adds: ‘Exploring the Tudor middle classes is new – that hasn’t been done before. We wanted to do a version that was not a chocolate box version but one that’s got dirt under the fingernails.’
A special camera has allowed night-time scenes to be filmed using only one candle (non-drip to safeguard the historic houses) to capture the authentic light of the time. Spoons appear in some scenes but not others because although they came into use around this period it was not at all levels of society.
The female characters have all had to accept the unflattering, flat-chested look produced when 16th-century corsets are worn correctly, and there are no chemical dyes bringing unrealistic bright colours to the costumes.
Certainly, in the costume trailer, it’s the everyday, middle-class clothing worn by Thomas Cromwell and family at their home, Austin Friars, which has had everyone most excited.
Joanna Eatwell, the costume designer, has more than 1,000 different characters to dress and is repeatedly summoned outside to cast her eye over groups of actors before they appear on set to ensure no one appears in spectacles, in incorrect clothing, or even wearing lipstick.
‘You won’t find a zip, or Velcro, even in the crowd,’ Eatwell says proudly, showing me one Thomas Cromwell costume from early in the drama, before his rise to power and riches.
It’s relatively plain, a muted mixture of greys and greens, and fastened with a complicated array of ‘points’: pieces of string with metallic ends, which must take ages to do up.
The metal ends were made by a contractor called ‘Annie the Pedlar’, and in the past were also used as Tudor gambling chips.
That detail has been applied across the board. Even Catherine of Aragon’s skirt is woven with her personal symbol, the pomegranate.
‘Probably no one will ever notice,’ Eatwell admits. ‘But we do.’
The only exception is the codpieces, which have already created an internet frenzy having been deliberately reduced in size for fear of alarming American viewers.
As Mark Rylance, who plays Cromwell, explains, there were fears the Americans ‘may not know exactly what’s going on down there’.
Eatwell turned to the paintings of Holbein as research.
‘He’s a genius – all the information is in his paintings,’ she says.
‘He not only painted members of the court, he also painted merchants and even some of Henry’s courtiers and staff, so we have a complete cross-section which is incredibly important for a piece like this.’
She refers to Henry as ‘our leading lady’ due to the wealth and elegance of his clothes.
Henry’s clothes are sumptuous, with fur and velvet – and a little padded stomach for the later part of the series. Lewis, for one, appears to have enjoyed his lengthy costume fittings.
‘You’ve got to start with the shoes,’ he tells me, quoting Laurence Olivier. ‘If you don’t get the shoes right, you’ll never get your character.’
Today, for Anne’s spectacular coronation scene, he is wearing a black gown embroidered with gold, a black velvet cap, and thigh-high, square-toed black boots, custom-made on the Isle of Wight using traditional techniques.
The only touch of modernity is the loose welt at the top of his boot, useful for storing his mobile phone when he’s not filming.
He tells me he would have loved to carry out the stunt riding for the jousting scene, too, but says he ‘hadn’t a hope in hell, for insurance reasons’.
The woman who unleashed this whirlwind, author Hilary Mantel, is conspicuous by her absence, though she was on-set when they filmed at Barrington Court a week earlier.
She apparently immersed herself so deeply in the RSC’s stage version of Wolf Hall that she gave the actors notes on their characters.
But a six-hour TV drama being filmed entirely on location is a different proposition.
‘We’re a massive, medieval mystery tour moving around Britain’, explains Pybus.
It was early on that Mantel exerted her influence, deliberating carefully before entrusting her vision of the 16th century to this team.
‘It’s a fundamental belief of mine that good drama doesn’t have to mean bad history,’ she said.
‘History is never a convenient shape. I wanted to know that the teams shared my values. But my expectations were high and have been exceeded.’
Pybus and Kosminsky came on a research visit to Hampton Court, where I work as a curator, before filming started.
Kosminsky had heard Mantel talking on the radio about the way she’d imagined Wolf Hall as a documentary, with a hand-held camera following the characters along the corridors of power.
As a documentary-maker himself, this told Kosminsky that he could work with her: their visions coincided.
I ask Rylance to what he attributed Wolf Hall’s appeal as a book, on stage and now on television.
‘Perhaps it is resonant too with the present day questions of independence and identity for the English,’ he says.
In the books, the reader gets to know Cromwell through his interior monologues; how will that work on screen?
‘Hopefully the film will make you want to read the book. And, if you have read the book, hopefully I will leave enough space between my ears for you to imagine what Cromwell is thinking.’
Kosminsky is eager that if I find fault with anything historical, I tell him, so he can correct it, rather than write it in any critique.
From what I have seen I can find no flaws, though I tell him, rather meanly, that his Jane Seymour (Kate Phillips) is too pretty.
My final request of Lewis is to see his codpiece. It is black velvet and really rather small.
‘It’s not massive, is it?’ he says. ‘It’s a very nice little dinky one.’
If you’re after codpieces and campery, Wolf Hall will disappoint.
But if you are looking for a magnificent, yet penetrating and carefully researched portrait of people who lived 500 years ago, this production of Wolf Hall can’t fail to excite.
Lucy Worsley will be presenting ‘Britain’s Tudor Treasure: A Night at Hampton Court’, Sat Jan 10, BBC2, 9pm.
‘Wolf Hall’ begins later this month on BBC2
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