Soon after the BBC committed to adapting Hilary Mantel’s books Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for TV, the author, speaking at a UK literary festival, said the producers must learn from the mistakes of another series tackling the same period, The Tudors.
She also declared she fully believed in the producers’ vision for Wolf Hall. The consensus is that her faith was well placed. The TV adaptation covered, in six episodes, 1,107 pages of the Mantel books, which fictionalise one the most tumultuous periods of British history. Like the historical novels, the series charts the rise to prominence of the previously maligned Thomas Cromwell, the protégé of Cardinal Wolsey and latterly chief advisor to Henry VIII.
Mark Rylance, previously best-known for his theatre work, received widespread acclaim for his Cromwell. Colin Callender, founder of Wolf Hall producer Playground Entertainment, says he contacted Rylance through a theatre producer he had worked with, Sonia Friedman. He adds that casting the lead was hugely important, not least as he is in virtually every scene across all six episodes and has to convey a lot of Cromwell’s inner dialogue.
“We needed someone who could convey a physical presence through his acting and who could carry the weight of the show on his shoulders,” says Callender. “Most actors can do two emotions well, some can do three. Mark can do so many. It was clear he was the man for this.”
Series writer Peter Straughan says he understood the adaptation process, and implicit challenges, having successfully reworked John le Carré spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for the big screen in 2011. Speaking about Rylance’s Cromwell, he says: “His performance was quite different from what the audience expects from a leading man in a TV drama. We hoped people would buy into the change of tempo, the different rhythm and metabolic rate this has to other TV shows.”
Company Pictures coproduced the series with Playground and US pubcaster PBS’s Masterpiece co-funded the series.
BBC Worldwide showed its faith in the series making it its key drama title at its Showcase event in February, entertaining buyers with a lavish Wolf Hall banquet in Liverpool Cathedral. It has already sold the series to Franco-German channel Arte and it will also be on its own global drama channel, BBC First.
Critics mostly praised the series, although some bemoaned its pacing and complexity. However, Mantel when making her comments about The Tudors specifically said she did not want to dumb down in any way, and no-one has levelled that accusation at the TV show.
Callender echoes the author’s sentiments. “There is an audience that looks for smart entertainment and doesn’t want to be pandered to,” he says. “In terms of writing, people now look to TV for the kind of storytelling they used to expect from US cinema in the seventies.”
Wolf Hall is the biggest drama launch on BBC Two under the current ratings system, which goes back to 2002. It garnered a consolidated series average of 4.4 million viewers and a 15.8% share
Wolf Hall was published in 2009 and won the Man Booker prize. The second part of the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, was published in 2012, won the same coveted prize
Prior to the TV series, the books generated combined sales worth an estimated £11 million (US$16.4 million)
The BBC commissioned four Tudor-themed docs – two for BBC Two, two for BBC Four – to create a themed season around the broadcast of Wolf Hall