You think candlelight is problematic? I like the candlelight, it’s Wolf Hall’s most redeeming quality, along with the gorgeous music. The only thing more unbelievable than a gently-raised lady scampering over to a strange lawyer to reveal her sister’s sexual secrets is Mary Boleyn proposing to Thomas Cromwell while lustfully stroking his grey velvet. It’s only slightly more perplexing than this week’s kitten-loving chick-magnet Cromwell. With only a handful of women appearing in this week’s episode literally half the cast threw themselves at him. While the scene between Mary and Cromwell in the book filled me with a sort of horrified amusement, seeing it on screen this week was somewhat bizarre. And Mary’s tearful plea that she wanted a husband who wouldn’t die is even more baffling, considering Cromwell was about fifty years old.


 ‘Are you short of money?’
‘Oh, yes!’ she says. ‘Yes, yes, yes, and no one has even thought about that! No one has even asked me that before. I have children. You know that.’ – Thomas Cromwell and Mary Boleyn – Wolf Hall

Before you shed too many tears for Mary, by 1536 she was receiving both a £100 pension from the crown 1 and 100 marks from the Priory of Tynemouth, roughly £80,000 in todays worth. Which makes her both better off than me and probably able to afford velvet. The annuity from Tynemouth has been speculated as a round-about way of Henry VIII paying an annuity for his illegitimate daughter, Catherine Carey, Mary Boleyn’s first child. The annuity apparently continued to be paid after the Prior Thomas Gardiner, who granted it to her, had moved on in 1536, despite the next prior trying to get out of it. 2 Her son, young Henry Carey, kept his inheritance intact via his aunt Anne Boleyn.3 Although this has been deliberately misinterpreted by Gregory and Mantel to make Anne an inheritance-thieving and son-snatching villain, Mary’s husband William Carey’s lands had reverted to the crown. His son’s wardship could have been granted to any of Henry’s favourites, and it is both unusual and fortunate it was granted to Anne. Anne made sure her nephew received an excellent education, and her sister Mary had both a good annuity and a position at court which saw her food and lodgings and probably clothing taken care of.

Anne probably would have given Mary better dresses, as Charity Wakefield looks like an extra from Reign. But I am still a bit mystified about Claire Foy’s bizarrely ill-fitting bodices. Still, they make for a distraction when her screechy, horrible Anne fills the screen. Foy, who having played both Little Dorrit and Adora Belle Dearheart is usually received with much enthusiasm in my household, is painfully boring.  In a departure from the nostril-flaring and flouncing Anne Boleyn of Hirst’s The Tudors, Foy is all throne-lolling, eyebrow-raising, spitty-cat and French-only-on-occassion when she wants to insult Cromwell. Henry wouldn’t have looked twice at such a shrew.

The Tudors has, of course, been hugely influential in Mantel’s work, who purports to have done five years of painstaking research, (which clearly included all four painful seasons of Hirst’s soap-opera) as she’s borrowed half of her supporting cast from the same cereal box of stereotypes, but made them infinitely more stupid.  Still, as we’ve yet to see Mary perform any fellatio, we have to concede she is slightly less slutty that Hirst’s interpretation. But just as dim.

Cromwell is almost completely surrounded by dimwits, ninnys and dunderheads, and when a character’s intelligence seems somewhat intact, they are instead painfully awkward. I wasn’t expecting Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, to get a good rap in the BBC adaptation, but Richard Dillane has so mastered Mantel’s version of Suffolk that he seems to surprise himself every time he delivers a line, looking suitably perplexed in the aftermath. Bernard Hill’s Duke of Norfolk plays it close to Mantel’s thuggish interpretation. But I am still trying to wrestle with the idea of a thin Cromwell, Wolsey and Brandon and a somewhat hefty Norfolk. And Damian Lewis’s head looks alarmingly small bobbing about between his enormous shoulder pads and awkwardly-perched bonnet. Henry himself had a bull-neck even when he was slimmer and pulled off the garb with more aplomb. Still, Lewis is being both attractively-brooding and red-haired enough to be hailed the greatest Henry VIII to ever grace our screens. Now a whole new generation of women can sigh over the wife-murdering, monk-torturing, abbey-plundering varlet.

Then we have Mantel’s poor, stupid Jane Seymour, who in reality may have been a little poor, but was certainly not stupid. Kate Phillips was introduced as the “sickly milk-faced creeper” who “cries if you look at her sideways” and who apparently can’t do much of anything. Raised in a family of courtiers and having served Katherine of Aragon, apparently Jane needs to be coaxed through how to conduct a conversation while Thomas Cranmer (who appears to have the beginnings of stupid) laughs at her. Charming.

Then there is the famous play where Cardinal Wolsey is dragged to hell, which must be an absolute delight for film-makers, with plenty of fodder for a visual feast. Only the grudgingly-admiring Henry VIII wasn’t actually there, and Cromwell’s “players” didn’t actually perform in the play, just to rain some boring facts on your parade.4 Of course the powerful scene of the men unmasking instilled a fury in the heart of a now-vengeful Thomas Cromwell. The scene could have been improved by him stroking allegedly mean-to-his-allegedly-drunken-wife Thomas More’s bunny, or maybe the return of Marlinspike. Then again, let’s hope Marlinspike’s scene only needed one take, the poor kitten was terrified (you mean rotters).


Still, never mind the (bring up the) bollocks. We’ve still got prosperous-pimp Thomas Boleyn, foolishly-foppish George Boleyn, wronged-wife Jane Boleyn and snitchy-slutty Mary/Madge Shelton to look forward too. And more homophobe for (actually-not-gay) Mark Smeaton. Brace yourselves.

12 Responses

  1. Neil Kemp

    Nice one, Olga. For me the only plus point in this production is the powerful, understated performance of Mark Rylance, who puts in an acting master-class that is well above the standards of this programme. Mary Boleyn’s attempted seduction of Cromwell and Thomas More’s Blofeld impression with a white rabbit rather than a cat, gave me the biggest laughs I’ve had in a long time.

    • Olga Hughes

      No one can resist a Blofeld reference! Both Mark and Jonathan Pryce make the show – I’ve no idea if the was Jonathan’s last episode. I’m finding Mark Gatiss a bit over the top though.

  2. Jasmine

    An excellent commentary, Olga. I actually missed this episode, but now feel I have no need to watch it on catch-up LOL. I disliked the book – well to be fair, I couldn’t get into it because the use of the present tense irritated me – and I found the first episode disjointed. I may try episode three…….

    • Olga Hughes

      Cromwell should be twirling his moustache by next week – or maybe they’ll bring the rabbit back.
      It is still pre-annulment and Wolsey has just died. They are going to have a lot to cram in to the next four episodes. Unless they’re doing more next year (I sincerely hope not)

  3. Underdogge

    I attempted a post which disappeared into cyber-space. I haven’t read the book OR seen the show (yet). I was thinking it might be worth a watch but Olga’s commentary has made me apprehensive. I guess the only way one can REALLY judge is by reading/watching a book/show. I guess I could try one episode and then not bother if it really isn’t my “cuppa tea”. Different strokes for different folks and all that. The Boleyn sisters do seem to get a “bum rap” in books/shows inspired, maybe somewhat loosely, by history.

    • Olga Hughes

      Well you should never trust the reviews Underdogge, watch it and decide for yourself. The f-word in the first episode may jolt you out of any slumber you’ve lapsed into.

  4. Kate Tudor

    I’ve read the book and absolutely loved the television adaptation. It is fiction, its not difficult to remember that when watching and its a huge improvement on the abominations that were “The Tudors” and “The White Queen”.

    • Olga Hughes

      I don’t think Mary Boleyn got much of a better rap in this than the Tudors Kate. But I did like Mark Rylance as Cromwell.

  5. Son Lyme

    You are of course free to dislike whatever you choose to, but to gripe about the accuracy of character portrayal is perhaps to miss the point. This is a fiction. A boldly stated fiction that is built around the author’s interest in her lead character Cromwell.

    As a novel, I found it to be subtle and superb. As a TV drama, I found its casting and design to be curious yet strangely delightful. Rarely a fan of Mr Rylance (for me too theatrical at times) I was mesmerised by his Cromwell.

    That Mary should stroke velvet (which you state she could well afford), and make a proposal to a man older and uglier than herself is also to confuse the point of the fiction with the fact of reality. This fiction is about power, and about how people seek to be close to it. Seduction lies at the heart of Henry’s sad tale. Sex and power seem to be at the heart of Henry’s dysfunctional court.

    That Mantel twists and fabricates her characters is also fine by me, as she is telling her story of Cromwell, and her story of power. Being fair and accurate is not the job of the dramatist or writer of fiction – telling a good story is. So if you want your idea of accuracy regarding Anne, or Mary, or anyone else – you must write that story – but it will be a story nonetheless – history, herstory, they are all stories in the end, and the only question left is did one enjoy them enough to believe them to be truthful.

    Thanks for the critique, I found it illuminating and entertaining. Good luck.

    • C S Hughes

      I think the point is, she hasn’t just taken historical liberties, which is to be expected, Mantel has slandered everyone from Anne Boleyn, her brother, the other accused courtiers, to Cromwell himself. Now you seem to believe sex, seduction and power were at the heart of Henry’s court, like it was an episode of Dynasty. The actual social, political and religious changes of the era are a lot more interesting than the petty tale Mantel has fabricated. Furthermore, Hilary goes around making the preposterous claim she is historically accurate. I believe it was eminent historian John Schofield who wrote the best study of Cromwell, who said words to the effect that men of state did not go around acting out of petty revenge like schoolboys.

      • Gail T

        Although I will pretty much watch anything connected to the Tudors, I agree with a lot of the comments in this article. I love the title because that was my thought as well. Why would any man be attracted to this bitchy insecure Anne, or desperate Mary Boleyn or dull Jane Seymour, and when did Cromwell become such a ladies’ man? Of course I still watched all the episodes. I saw the play (twice) and enjoyed it a lot more.

  6. Alan Ellaway

    I found this production, pretty boring and surprisingly bland. The oldest Wolsey I have ever seen, was off-putting in the first episode. I immediately thought that whoever decided on this casting had no respect for their prospective audience, as anyone who knows anything about history knew Wolsey was certainly not this old gentleman. Living in America I am not too familiar with the actor Mark Rylance ( although I was a little surprised when researching him-due to this series- that he apparently provided a nude erect penis for a brief oral sex appearance in a movie{ one wonders about the necessity for such “realism” when it is just a “brief appearance?}, but found his pained /strained expression a bit of a trial after witnessing it for episode after episode. The actress playing Anne Boleyn was not my idea of Anne at all, also Henry seemed a bit of a clod to be the supposed intellectual who was though of as a good looking golden Prince.

    The costumes were pretty much a disaster, poorly made and not looking at all sumptuous, the Tudor portraits, give a much better idea of the structure amazing materials and embroidery than this shabby bunch, which more than anything made me think of a small budgeted repertory company.

    For me the best casting of Henry was Robert Shaw in A Man For All Seasons and Genevieve Bujold’s Anne Boleyn in Anne of the Thousand Days was easily the most convincing.


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