Arts & Culture · Film & Television

Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ Comes to PBS

-1PBS’s Wolf Hall

Last summer, my family attended a bat mitzvah in London. When we weren’t celebrating with our friends and their daughter, we took advantage of the wonderful shows in the West End and the same-day half-price tickets available each morning in Leicester Square. But, whether we were looking for a bargain or willing to pay full price (or even a premium), there was one show we couldn’t get tickets to that week: Wolf Hall. After its triumphant run at the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon, no one could get tickets. (I don’t think even Wills and Kate could have gotten tickets. All right, they probably could. But we, alas, could not.)

A little closer to home, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production is opening on Broadway next week. But tickets are just as scarce—and expensive. Reports have brokers charging as much as $450 a ticket. ‘Talk about Yankee ingenuity!

How thrilled I am, then, that PBS will show the 6-part BBC2 adaptation starting this Sunday.

(Mad Men fans, be warned. Sadly, the two programs conflict. So, if you want to catch both, either set your DVR or scour the local PBS listings– typically there are encore performances.)

Wolf Hall began as a much-heralded book. Author Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize in 2009 for it, and again in 2012 for the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. The two books (and a final, third volume, The Mirror and the Light, still in the works) focus on the 16th-century Tudor court of Henry VIII from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell.

Five hundred years later, Henry VIII’s reign still fascinates us. And it has been covered again and again, from The Six Wives of Henry VIII in the 1970s to Showtime’s more recent The Tudors. Anne Boleyn, in particular seems to capture the imagination; she was portrayed by Geneviève Bujold in 1969’s Anne of the Thousand Days and by Natalie Portman nearly 40 years later in The Other Boleyn Girl.

But Mantel’s focus on Cromwell is a new take, and, if her book sales are any indication, this resonates with a modern audience. Cromwell began life not just as a commoner, but as a “scoundrel’s son.” His father was a jack-of-all-trades, a blacksmith and tavern owner, and his “rap sheet” with the local authorities included dozens of offenses, including assault as well as perhaps the more egregious offense, “watering down beer.” Young Thomas purportedly spent some time in jail as well, until he ran away at the age of 15, traveling to the Netherlands and France before finding a patron in the wealthy Florentine Frescobaldi family. His Italian studies proved invaluable when he finally returned to England. After serving as a persuasive liaison to the Pope (whom he allegedly bribed with sweetmeats), he was employed by Cardinal Wolsey. When Wolsey was unable to obtain Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, he fell out of favor. Cromwell stepped in and quickly became Henry’s right hand and the second most powerful man in England.

Cromwell masterminded Henry’s annulment from Catherine and marriage to Anne Boleyn. He was instrumental in establishing the Church of England and dissolving the Catholic monasteries (thereby filling Henry’s coffers). He eventually orchestrated Anne’s downfall and execution. After Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, died, Cromwell brokered Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. Henry was displeased with his bride, and Cromwell was eventually charged with treason and corruption, and executed.

His story didn’t quite end there, however. Within weeks, Henry had regrets and mourned “the most faithful servant I ever had.”

As you can imagine, the mini-series has a lot to cover in six episodes. And by all accounts it’s enormously successful.

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