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Appointment Viewing: Winding Down the Corridors of History in Wolf Hall

Appointment Viewing is a regular column which features a Spinoff writer watching one or more episodes of a current show and attempting to decode its appeal. Here Tara Ward gets to know the political complexities of sixteenth century Tudor England in Wolf Hall.

What’s it all about?

Wolf Hall covers Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power in the Tudor court of King Henry VIII. The son of a lowly blacksmith, Cromwell manipulated his way through the royal ranks. Gaining positions of influence and privilege far beyond his birth, Cromwell eventually became a powerful chief adviser to the King.

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The show begins in 1529 with King Henry VIII married to Catherine of Aragon, a union that produced only one living daughter. Enamoured with Anne Boleyn and hopeful for a son (and heir to the throne) by remarrying, Henry appeals to the Catholic Church for a divorce from Catherine. The Church refuses, and in response Henry banishes his Lord Chancellor Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Cromwell’s patron and friend.

Who should watch it?

Wolf Hall is intelligent television. Adapted from the award-winning historical novels by Hilary Mantel, the plot is clever and the intrigue complex. The show relies on powerful dialogue and stellar dramatic performances to progress the plot, rather than fast-paced action sequences. The sombre atmosphere of candlelight and shadow compliments Wolf Hall’s slow, considered pace. There’s no gratuitous sex or violence. In fact, it’s not until episode four that the main character raises his voice.

Who’s Who in Wolf Hall

Thomas Cromwell: He’s a Tudor Frank Underwood, pulling strings and playing every side to advance his own case. This is a benevolent depiction of Cromwell, portrayed as a family man, loyal friend and hard working politician. When not speaking in calm, measured tones, Cromwell talks with his eyes. A lot.

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King Henry VII: Damian Lewis is the perfect Henry. Oozing ego and swagger, confidence and lust, he also retains a sense of vulnerability in his desperation for a male heir. His performance is so good that he makes voluminous orange smocks look sexy.

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Anne Boleyn: the woman that Henry leaves the Catholic Church for. Not bad when the bloke you’ve the hots for changes the course of Western Civilisation, just for you and/or the potential fruit of your loins. Anne is realistic about her role as Queen; she is as calculating and clever as Cromwell in her efforts to gain and retain power.

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Thomas More: the villain of Wolf Hall, Lord Chancellor to King Henry and rival to Cromwell. More opposes Henry’s efforts to gain a divorce by separating from Rome, and refuses to recognise him as the head of the Church of England. Not a good move, really.

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Jane Seymour – alas, it’s not Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman. That would have really shaken things up. This Jane is Lady in Waiting to Anne and a member of the troubled Seymour family of Wolf Hall. Despite her “pasty face” and nervous manner, Jane falls under the lustful eye of Henry – much to Anne’s dismay.

Still not convinced?

Some UK viewers responded to Wolf Hall by saying it was too confusing to follow. If you also find the politics and plot challenging, it may help to think of Wolf Hall as a quality, historical version of Made in Chelsea. (Wolf Hall, I do you a huge disservice, but bear with me).

Both Wolf Hall and Made in Chelsea focus on the indulgences of society’s elite. Characters obsess over who’s sleeping with whom, who’s backstabbed whom, or whose motives are insincere or suspicious. There’s a party and gatherings aplenty (“hey chaps! today we learn to joust!”). Everyone’s married to somebody’s brother or cousin – or at least spent their childhood summers at their friend’s uncle’s castle.

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Henry is the Tudor equivalent of Spencer: charismatic, arrogant and prone to obesity. Both men thrive on power, and gather their closest associates around them to bolster their alpha male ego. Louise is a modern day Queen Anne: a prize admired and hard won, but discarded by her lover once she becomes problematic. Proudlock is Cromwell’s equivalent, skulking around in the background, watching, waiting, and looking good in a variety of headwear.

Granted, the consequences of betrayal and dishonesty in Made in Chelsea won’t result in the downfall of an empire or being beheaded, but you get the idea. Plus, I’m sure Sophia from season four and the actress playing Lady Mary Boleyn were separated at birth. Take from that what you will.

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How best to watch?

To get optimum Wolf Hall viewing pleasure, I suggest you replicate the Tudor atmosphere of in your own home. Darken the room, light a candle or two and put on your best orange smock. Speak minimally and always in a monotone – all other communication must be made by eyebrow rises and slight head movements.

Wolf Hall is perfect winter fare. In fact, it’s a veritable slow-cooked beef bourguignon: intense, unhurried and tender, its layers becoming denser and more delicious over time. Settle back and get comfortable. Wolf Hall is a show you need to commit to – your efforts will be well rewarded.

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