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The Critic of Wolf Hall

I type this warily, with 'Tread softly because you tread on my dreams,' in mind. And I ought to say straight up that I am enjoying the BBC's adaptation of Wolf Hall. But. I can only assume that the fervent praise for it I see on social media is from people who have read and loved the books, and who are delighted to see what I gather is generally a very good adaptation on the screen.

As someone who hasn't read anything by Hilary Mantel (in fact I've hardly read anything by any Booker Prize winner, because with a few exceptions like William Golding, I really don't get anything from reading literary fiction except a sense of worthiness), I do think that the glowing praise needs to be balanced by a little negative criticism.

Before I do, I'll get some praise in. It's very well acted, the locations are excellent, and as someone who is fascinated by Tudorbethan times (mostly because it's my favourite period for music), there's a distinct thrill of thinking, when we first meet, say, Dr Ridley, 'I know what's going to happen to you!' It's a bit like playing god. But.

So here we go with a few bullets to the heart:

  • It's a bit dark. I don't mean ominous, I mean without enough lighting. Sometimes this works wonderfully. It's hard not to think when, for instance, you see Cardinal Wolsey glowing by candlelight against a murky backdrop, 'I now understand why paintings of the period look the way they do.' But I still have two problems. One is that I'm currently re-watching the X-Files, and I've always felt they spent far too much time wandering around in the dark by torchlight. Similarly, it seems a trifle overdone in Wolf Hall - just substitute candles for torches. The other problem is that eyes don't work the same way that TV cameras do. I think with the number of candles in some scenes, because the human eye is so good at working in low light (think how well you can see by moonlight), there wouldn't be so many dark voids - you would comfortably be able to see the whole room.
  • An awful lot of the scenes have the same format. Character spends a long time walking into a room. Character exchanges a few lines with another character. Character spends a long time walking out the room. I think the series could lose about an hour of walking and benefit from it. I get it that this isn't 24, and they want to be leisurely about it, but sometimes the pace verges on somnolence.
  • If you live in Wiltshire, it is hard not to spend quite a lot of time thinking, 'That's not Greenwich, that's Bowood House... if you go through that door you get to the gift shop' or whatever. This is, of course, an unfair complaint, as they had to film somewhere, but it's hard not to get distracted by it. Oh, and I did think they could have spruced up some of the stonework, which looked as if it were over 400 years old, rather than newish.
  • Finally, I hope they'll get a bit more variety in the period music. We're only two episodes in and we've heard the mournful sounding tune Ah, Robin three times now. Admittedly it's quite appropriate, as when performed as it should be, as a part song, it's essentially about two friends discussing their mistresses, and it's a piece I'm very fond of, but even so this was a very rich period musically.
So there we have it. I like it, but I can't get as excited as everyone else seems to be. I shall now retire to my bomb shelter and await the assault.

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