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The Tudor godfather: Henry VIII’s court was as brutal as any Mafia clan

By Daphne Lockyer

A pale and dignified Anne Boleyn picks her way across the rough terrain in elegant little shoes, en route to her own execution.

Above her the sky is growing darker and more ominous by the moment. The blustery wind ripples through her ermine cape and buffets the skirts of her damask gown – its deep grey colour chosen to neutralise the bright red blood that’s about to flow.

The scaffold itself is a gruesome sight. There’s the executioner, ordered from Calais, and the glint of the 4ft-long sword that will dispatch her.

Before the end, of course, we must hear the famous, final speech – delivered by Anne while kneeling at the block – the one in which this former Queen of England, now dumped, divorced, divested of her title and about to be decapitated on the say-so of her husband Henry VIII, talks of his goodness.

‘I pray God save the King… For a gentler nor a more merciful prince there never was. Oh Lord, have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul,’ she adds, before the blade falls – at which precise moment of filming, the heavens decide to open and the rain begins to fall.

This is one of the pivotal scenes in the BBC’s brilliant six-part adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s duo of Booker Prize-winning historical novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, starring theatre veteran Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell and Damian Lewis as Henry VIII.

Claire Foy, the actress who plays the doomed Boleyn, is still reeling from the execution scene, days later. ‘Everything on that day – including the weather – was just so heightened,’ she explains.

‘And it does stay with you. Before we filmed it I thought, “This will be fine! I’ll play it just as Anne Boleyn was supposed to have done.” Yes, she was pale and shaking, but she didn’t cry or plead. She was hard as nails, totally dignified.

‘We hadn’t rehearsed, because the director wanted it to be fresh and spontaneous. But when it was time for the speech, he said, “OK, darling, we’re just going to go for one take and see what happens, but this is your moment, so…” And, suddenly, the thought that this was the last time she’d ever say anything hit me and I nearly lost it. It really was an incredibly emotional moment.’

If Mantel’s books – which focus on Henry VIII’s scheming right-hand man Thomas Cromwell and have earned £11 million in sales in the UK alone – are anything to go by, you can expect plenty more of those. Buckle up for a bumpy ride through the Tudor court in all its brutal glory – the betrayals, the power struggles and the skulduggery.

Today we’re at Winchester Cathedral (doubling for St George’s Chapel, Windsor), one of the many historic locations in the South of England and Wales that have opened their doors to the £7 million production. Outside the cathedral it may be 2014 – but inside it’s the 1530s.

The cast in tights, velvet hats and brocaded dress coats with fur collars (and that’s just the men) cram into pews while a scene that marks the beginning of Anne’s downfall is enacted. Here she comes, all pearl headdress and heaving, milk-white bosom, surrounded by a fluttering posse of ladies-in-waiting.

She’s about to bump into Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, who’ll bow and acknowledge her even though he believes she’s a she-devil. ‘It’s an “accidental” meeting set up by Cromwell to benefit Henry,’ producer Mark Pybus explains.

‘Once Chapuys has bowed and been seen to support her, Henry will be free to dispatch Anne, because the only thing holding him back has been not wanting it said that he’d got rid of her because of pressure from Spain and the rest of the Continent. Politics, of course, was every bit as cynical then as it is today.’

Like the books themselves, the drama pulls no punches about the period. ‘And we had to give assurances to Hilary Mantel that we’d be true to her vision in the books, which meant showing the dirt beneath the fingernails of history,’ Pybus adds.

No one should worry, then, that the series is going to be sugar-coated. ‘Peter Straughan, who adapted the books, doesn’t patronise the characters. He doesn’t think they’re cute because they’re Tudors,’ says Mantel. ‘He treats them with the consideration one would give to contemporaries.’

Don’t think of Wolf Hall as a fusty old history lesson either. ‘Think of it as a very contemporary story of power, loyalty and betrayal that happens to be about people who lived 500 years ago,’ says executive producer Colin Callender.

The director telling that story is BAFTA-winning Peter Kosminsky, who is normally behind the camera in modern political thrillers like The Government Inspector (which starred Mark Rylance) and The Promise (which starred Claire Foy).

The duo are joined by Lewis, in one of his first roles since leaving US series Homeland, playing Henry VIII. He’s on set today, resplendent in thigh-length plaited boots. ‘A lot of my friends have said, “It must be hot in the fat suit,”’ he laughs.

‘But I’m not playing Henry in his bloated, womanising, syphilitic, genocidal Elvis era. During our story he was a much younger man. He had a 32in waist and was the premier peacock of Britain. He loved hunting, jousting, horse riding, tennis, archery and wrestling. He’s complicated and three-dimensional.

‘He can be cruel and vindictive or generous and friendly. We see him frightened by the memory of his mother, Elizabeth of York, and I think these are insights people won’t be used to. But then, just when we’re feeling sympathy for him, we’re reminded of the sociopath in him… Henry singing love songs and thinking about Jane Seymour, as his second wife is being executed.’

Not that he has the biggest role in Wolf Hall, as he himself admits. ‘Wolf Hall is really the story of Cromwell’s rise from the gutter to become probably the second-most-powerful man in the land.’

Just like Mantel’s books, the story unfolds through Cromwell’s eyes or, as Mark Rylance puts it, ‘it’s as if there’s a camera on his shoulder’. And the rest of the 120-strong cast of characters – including Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce), Thomas More (Anton Lesser) and Cromwell’s arch enemy, Stephen Gardiner, played by Mark Gatiss – operate around him. The latter has been having a ball with his role.

‘I come in every few weeks, sweep into a beautiful stately home, bitch at Thomas Cromwell and he bitches back at me, and then I go home.’

Best known for his stage work, Rylance is a two-time Olivier and three-time Tony award-winner. But Wolf Hall is one of his biggest challenges yet, ‘It’s an astonishing role and a huge part,’ he adds, ‘and at times it’s been overwhelming. I’ve been saved by being able to work with an amazing cast and director.’

The actor sees links between Cromwell and certain Mafia characters. ‘He’s Henry’s VIII’s consigliere, isn’t he? His right-hand man. But he also reminds me of Al Pacino’s character in The Godfather. He has to degrade everything that’s soft in himself and become more pragmatic to save The Family – which in this case is the big, gangster brotherhood of the English monarchy.’

Which brings us back to the execution scene – the one in which Anne Boleyn, in Mafia speak, gets ‘whacked’. According to producer Mark Pybus, when the rain started falling, Rylance had a brilliant, unscripted moment.

‘He turned his face skywards as the rain fell and the look that we were able to capture on camera said it all: “This is God’s judgement. We’re all going to hell in a handcart.” That moment was sublime.’ From what we’ve seen so far, so is the rest of the drama.

Wolf Hall begins later this month on BBC2.


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