My wife and I have been fans of Masterpiece Theatre (now renamed Masterpiece) since it began on PBS in 1971. Over the years we’ve been treated to some of the finest dramas ever seen on television. Many of the programs were dramatizations of literary classics (A Tale of Two Cities, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Silas Marner, and The Forsyte Saga), some were dramas based on stories written especially for the program (Upstairs, Downstairs; The Duchess of Duke Street; and Downton Abbey), and many were programs based on history (I, Claudius (my absolute favorite); The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and Elizabeth R).
A new six-part series entitled Wolf Hall will premier on Easter Sunday, April 5 at 10:00 p.m. EST on PBS, and it promises to be one of the greatest offerings of Masterpiece ever. Wolf Hall is based on the first two books (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) of an extremely popular trilogy penned by the popular author Hilary Mantel. The first two books have sold over 4 million copies and are available in 37 languages. The final book of the trilogy will be published later this year.
Mantel’s Wolf Hall books take place during the reign of Henry VIII, but Thomas Cromwell, not Henry, is the central character. Mantel did extensive research on all of the characters, and used historical facts where they were available. Where no information existed, she created it from her imagination. Each of her two books about Cromwell has been awarded the Man Booker Prize – the first time a woman has won two of the prestigious British literary awards. One has to wonder if the final book in her Wolf Hall trilogy will also win the Man Booker Prize.
The series has already aired in Great Britain, so we know how it was received there. You can read a gushing review of the series (also from The Guardian) here.
I was particularly taken by one paragraph of Lucy Mangan’s review in The Guardian:
“How do you dramatise a world that is mostly interior calculation, silent power plays and noiseless traps? By assembling a cast in which there is not one weak link. Try Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Wolsey; Anton Lesser as the unflinching, infuriating Thomas More; and Damian Lewis as Henry (‘Could you give us the kind of charismatic kingship that lasts down the ages with a side order of ego and caprice that could usher in a religious reformation? But we need to be able to love him, too, else this whole thing makes no sense?’ ‘Coming right up’). And, as if that weren’t enough, Claire Foy moving flawlessly from bold, brave and brilliant bitch to sacrificial lamb as Anne Boleyn; and, of course, Mark Rylance as the indefatigable, implacable, terrifying, awe-inspiring Cromwell, delivering a performance that will probably require the invention of new awards.”
You can also get an idea of the tenor of the review of the PBS series in The Atlantic from the review’s title: “With Wolf Hall, PBS Finds a Drama Worthy of the Word ‘Masterpiece.’ ” And once again Mark Rylance gets kudos: “Rylance’s Cromwell would make for hypnotic viewing if he were doing street theater in overalls.”
The PBS Newshour recently aired an interview with Hilary Mantel in which she discussed Wolf Hall and how she chose to write it. Also note that a play, based on her books, will soon premier on Broadway.
More information (and videos) about Wolf Hall is available at the PBS website.
Watch it Sunday night or record and watch it later, but don’t miss this masterpiece.