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Ed Miller

‘Wolf Hall’ on the BBC and PBS

The BBC’s version of Wolf Hall, to be shown by PBS in April, may not be the most watched show on British television at the moment: an audience of 3.9 million for the first episode dropped to 2.9 million for the second. No other program, though, is attracting anything like the same level of media attention, with the series variously hailed by critics as a triumphant return to the BBC’s classiest form, reviled on Twitter for being too slow, questioned by academics for its historical accuracy, and attacked by Catholic bishops for its hostility to Thomas More—and to Catholicism in general.

The fact that the adaptation, directed by Peter Kosminsky, has squeezed the 1,100 pages of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning original novel and its Booker Prize-winning sequel Bring up the Bodies into just six hours of TV might suggest yet another fast-paced Tudor romp. (By the same page to screen-time ratio, the epic 1980s version of Brideshead Revisited would have lasted just over ninety minutes.) Instead, the show is so far almost defiantly unhurried: a succession of short, discrete scenes in which Thomas Cromwell, compellingly played by twice Tony award-winner Mark Rylance, engineers his rise from obscurity to the job of Henry VIII’s fixer largely by looking watchful and exchanging carefully-weighed words with whomever he’s talking to—often by authentic but undeniably dim Tudor candlelight. It’s routinely said that the test of a good actor is that you can tell what the character is thinking. What makes Rylance’s performance so riveting, however, is that you can’t.

Wolf Hall is now showing on BBC Television. The series will air on PBS, starting Sunday, April 5, 2015. For more information visit pbs.org.

Broadcasting House,
London, England