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Bringing the Tudors to television and Broadway in ‘Wolf Hall’

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    There's a lot of buzz this weekend about a Tudor takeover coming to television, as Henry VIII, his many wives, and his scheming ministers are suddenly as alive as ever.

    A new series premieres this weekend on "Masterpiece," one that already has a strong literary following eagerly awaiting the adaptation.

    Jeffrey Brown has our look.

  • ACTOR:

    Master Cromwell…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's on television.

  • ACTOR:

    Your reputation is bad.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    On Broadway.

  • ACTOR:

    I was once the best cook in all of Italy.

  • ACTOR:

    His grace would like salmon.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And in print.

    Hilary Mantel and her historic characters are seemingly everywhere.

    HILARY MANTEL, Author, "Wolf Hall": The ever expanding Henry VIII.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Literally.

  • HILARY MANTEL:

    With his six wives. No one else has a ruler with six wives, who cuts the heads off two of them. So you're off to a flying start there.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Mantel's novels "Wolf Hall" and its sequel, "Bring Up the Bodies," have been an international sensation, with more than four million books sold in 37 languages. She won the prestigious Man Booker Prize twice, a first for a woman.

    It's a familiar story in many ways, the momentous reign in the 1500s of the Tudor King Henry, played on television by Damian Lewis, basking in power, but needing a male heir, cutting loose one wife in favor of the young Anne Boleyn, only to cut her head off when no son is produced.

    But Hilary Mantel has told the story in a new way, giving the lead role to Thomas Cromwell, played by Mark Rylance. Cromwell has long been cast as the heavy, a shadowy cruel schemer, especially as compared to his great rival, Thomas More. Mantel's Cromwell is certainly clever and scheming, but he's also charming and urbane.

  • HILARY MANTEL:

    Thomas Cromwell, son of a blacksmith, who rose to be the king's right-hand man and eventually earl of Essex.

    And my question is simple: How do you do that? What kind of a man in that hierarchical, structured society can break through all the social layers, all the factors stacked against him, and climb so high? And what is the price?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You looked at the history and you said, this is wrong, the way he's been portrayed?

  • HILARY MANTEL:

    I thought it was a lot more complicated and nuanced than the popular picture of Cromwell. I wanted to put the spotlight on him. And I wanted to ask my reader, or our audience, well, what would you do if you were him? Just walk a mile in his shoes, and then see what you think.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The six-hour television production adapted from the two novels went to great lengths to get the details right, including shooting on locations where the historical figures once lived.

    For the actors, there were challenges and rewards.

    MARK RYLANCE, "Wolf Hall": It was 17 weeks, and I was in every scene. So it was physically tiring. Most films are not spanned over six hours. So that was quite — that was quite challenging, to jump about like that, to film a scene, and then go have my clothes changed, and then have another scene that was maybe 20 years later.

    It is the story of a new modern man at the beginning of a new modern Europe. Everyone really tries to serve the whims of Henry VIII.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The theater production also went for historical accuracy, from jewelry to the elaborate costumes, which took 25 seamstresses more than 8,000 hours to make.

    Mantel has worked closely with both productions, especially the play, including attending previews on Broadway, observing actor Ben Miles as Cromwell, and then giving notes and ideas to the director and cast.

  • HILARY MANTEL:

    I don't think of the novels when I'm in the theater, but my mind is divided, because part of me is thinking, now, this scene is looking interesting tonight. What is the king going to do next?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Really? Even you're thinking that?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Not everyone has accepted Mantel's version of events surrounding this key moment in English history, when Henry defied the pope in Rome and created the Church of England.

    Two Catholic bishops criticized the series when it aired in Britain for its — quote — "perverse and anti-Catholic" depiction of Thomas More, who's been canonized by the church.

    Mantel, though, says she grounded her fiction in years of research.

  • HILARY MANTEL:

    I think that an imaginative writer for stage or novel has a — still has a responsibility to their reader, and that responsibility is to get the history right.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You want to do that?

  • HILARY MANTEL:

    Absolutely. That's the absolute foundation of what I do.

    I begin to imagine at the point where the facts run out. But, like a historian, I'm working on the great marshy ground of interpretation.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Which historians do, but also, you're saying, novelists?

  • HILARY MANTEL:

    Exactly. We all share the same sources. We share the same facts. The question is, where do we stand to view them?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So are you pleased with the way this has turned out, both on television and on stage?

  • HILARY MANTEL:

    I think my books are so well-served and, as I say, enhanced by both media.

    I sometimes think back, though, to the day when I began, because it's very vivid in my mind, writing the first paragraph, and having that feeling, by the time I was halfway down the first page, this is the best thing you have ever done. I was walking around with a big grin: Do you want to see my first page?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And there is one more act to come. Mantel is at work on part three of her epic tale. No spoiler alert is required. History tells us that Cromwell himself will lose his head. The pleasure for Hilary Mantel then is in the telling.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

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