I am still stealing through Stalin: the Bolshevik Revolution has begun in chaos, the Commissariat has concluded a peace treaty with Germany, but the rest of the world (by now including America) are still at war – so I thought I would jump on another band wagon.
It would be hard to escape the fact that a major new series on the Tudors is now screening on BBC 2. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the much acclaimed novels by Hilary Mantel, have reached the stage and now have reached the small screen, with as stellar a cast as it is possible to imagine, only Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne are missing (almost).
Wolf Hall (the TV series) will take us as far as Hilary Mantel has got, the final volume of this marvellously interesting and engrossing (in every sense of the word) trilogy is still to be published. But whatever one may think of these translations to different media, even on the basis of Part One – The Three Card Trick, it is possible to see how the TV screen has it over the stage. While enjoying the stage production, for what it was – a very skilful costume drama belonging more in the 1950-60 style of the Royal Shakespeare Company tradition, it lacked entirely the interiority of the books. Wolf Hall (the book) existed entirely in the head of Thomas Cromwell, every thought, every thing and every character was seen from behind his eyes. Some, possibly many, found this very difficult and the switches in time and place, as his mind flitted from what he was seeing to something in his past, made for a concentrated read, if you were not paying attention you could find yourself sliding. Personally, I adored it!
The TV series has that advantage, both time AND the ability to switch time/place as Thomas remembers things; his father’s violent cruelty, for example, we are in the present and Thomas is at the blacksmith’s forge, then suddenly in the past. None of this was possible on stage, so a great deal was lost.
On stage, Bring Up the Bodies worked better, partly because the book dealt with a much shorter time span, but also because the whole book concentrated (still from the Thomas Cromwell perspective) on the destruction of Anne Boleyn. Though how anyone further back than Row H could distinguish the various characters accused of sleeping with the Queen it is hard to imagine, since they were dressed more or less exactly the same. Perhaps that was the whole point?
Obviously, by bringing this to the small screen there has been much talk of an earlier film A Man for All Seasons. The Robert Bolt version of the life of Sir Thomas More, England’s last Roman Catholic Chancellor, Thomas Wolsey’s successor and Thomas Cromwell’s hated enemy.
Much has been made of the saintly Thomas More and the blackguard Thomas Cromwell who engineered his death, and in his turn gained the Chancellor’s chain of office. Hilary Mantel changed all that and gave us a different view. Maybe equally wrong or partly wrong or completely right. How can we possibly know? but at least, she has given him a place in history that is preferable to the one to which he was consigned heretofore.
Much has been written, and many films made about the tragic life of Anne Boleyn. She has her champions – Alison Weir for one, her book The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn makes her view quite clear. Hilary Mantel clearly thinks there was no smoke without fire, David Starkey doesn’t mind whether she was guilty or not, he admires her for what she, uniquely, did. De-throned an existing, living Queen and mounted the throne herself. I remember years ago, a film called Young Bess, which was about the young Princess Elizabeth, but it also showed Anne Boleyn in a less than perfect light. In one memorable scene on a ship, King Henry caresses Anne’s neck, by encircling it with his hand…a dreadful reminder of how very slender that neck was. And I still remember that scene, although I was only about 12 or 13 at the time, a long time ago, I promise.
So while we are dwelling on these matters, I thought I would suggest another book. A book that deals with Henry VIII before everything starts to unravel and go so wrong. Henry, Virtuous Prince by David Starkey. It all started so well, and went so badly wrong. It is no surprise to learn that the death of his older brother Arthur was devastating.
Henry was not brought up for statehood, and certainly not for Kingship. He was learned, pious, creative and full of vigour. He loved showing off, was good on horseback and handy on foot, loved jousting and also loved learning. So where beneath that charming, intelligent exterior lay the man he was to become? Ruthless, greedy, voracious and unforgiving.