by Dick Hobbs Issue 98 - February 2015
If you have even once turned on BBC television in the last couple of months, you could not fail to learn that the big blockbuster drama this winter is Wolf Hall, a television adaptation of Hilary Mantel\'s two-thirds complete trilogy about the Tudors, and Thomas Cromwell in particular.
I subscribe to what seems to be a widely held view: that Mantell\'s books are huge, dense, unwieldy and generally unreadable. So I was very much looking forward to seeing this adaptation. And a whole host of co-production partners had joined in to raise a budget worthy of the project - reputedly £7 million for six hour-long episodes.
But even before the first episode was screened, the criticisms started. One which I thought particularly unfortunate was that Claire Foy was "too pretty\" to play Anne Boleyn. The view of the 16th century equivalent of Charlie Hebdo was that she was a bit flat-chested, but no suggestion that she was ugly.
Following the screening of the first episode, the critics generally loved it. But there was a wave of comments about actors mumbling and pictures being so dark you could not see what was happening.
"Comedian\" Jason Manford tweeted "Trying to watch Wolf Hall but can\'t see a thing #morecandlesplease". Except he used a popular if vulgar qualifier for the word thing.
Former political spin-doctor Alistair Campbell - again not someone I would normally believe a word he uttered - also took to Twitter to say "Not entirely persuaded by the lighting strategy". I will leave you to supply your own jokes about Mr Campbell\'s efforts to persuade us about strategies.
At the time I read these criticisms, the first episode was still sitting on my Sky+ box unwatched, waiting for a suitable time to concentrate on it. Prompted by the good and bad reviews, last night I poured myself a glass of wine and sat down to view.
I thought practically everything about the production was simply wonderful (I have never been a fan of Mark Rylance, who plays the central character, but that is just me). The script, the cast, the direction, the pictures, the music and the sound design were extraordinary.
If you are old enough to remember the conspiracy theorists\' favourite The X Files, you will probably remember the story about some of the scenes only being lit by torches. That was not true, by the way: I once visited the set in Vancouver and was told definitively by the DoP that there was always some lighting in even the gloomiest of scenes.
But in Wolf Hall, if the scene is supposed to be lit by candles, then it was lit by candles. Not by candles and a few banks of LEDs to fill in. Just by candles. It looked sensational. Given that quite often the locations were the same buildings that the real Tudors had these same meetings for real, the sense of authenticity was remarkable.
DoP Gavin Finney chose an Arri Alexa camera for the shoot. According to Arri\'s website, the new generation of Alexa cameras has better than 14 stops of latitude, and an equivalent exposure index up to 3200. That means you really can see - and capture beautiful pictures - by candlelight.
The excessively pretty Claire Foy said she had not believed it would be possible to film by candlelight. "I was trying not to catch fire,\" she said. "There were a lot of beards and wigs in that room.
"I remember looking at Gavin and saying \'seriously, you can\'t see anything. Obviously I don\'t know anything about cameras, and it just looks amazing. But it is bonkers that you\'re able to do that."
As good as the pictures were, the sound matched it. Wonderful music by Debbie Wiseman, and authentic Tudor music arranged by Claire van Kampen, supported an atmospheric sound track which must have been hard work given that a lot of the show was on location and I did not hear a trace of modern life. The actors were encouraged to pitch the dialogue as the drama demanded, and it consistently sat on top of the soundtrack.
So why the complaints? First, I should say that I made an appointment to view. I watched in HD on my 42\" Pioneer plasma (I am dreading the day that dies). I turned on the (not expensive by any means) home theatre system so I could enjoy the 5.1 audio. And I concentrated.
Could it be that the chattering classes have lost the ability to concentrate on television? I am pretty certain that if you were in a brightly lit room with other sounds around and the distraction of updating Facebook on your phone then it would not be so involving.
Should programme makers work to the lowest common denominator? Should director Peter Kosminsky have relinquished his vision to be sure that it would look and sound all right on iPlayer, on a slow connection on an iPad? Or should premium television continue to be a premium experience? If you have thoughts, let me know.
And one last point on Wolf Hall. On the end credits for episode one I counted at least 12 Skillset trainees. Even if the programme was not as well made as it was, you would have to congratulate it on creating such a lot of opportunities for the next generation of craft talent.