It might have won a whole load of BAFTAs, but the BBC’s adaptation of Wolf Hall almost went down in history for another, more incendiary reason…
Wolf Hall – the critically acclaimed, BAFTA-winning, pre-Spider-Man Tom Holland-starring 2015 drama based on Hilary Mantel’s equally acclaimed novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies – is rightly remembered as one of the finest historical dramas of the 2010s. Charting the rise of politically canny lawyer Thomas Cromwell within the court of Henry VIII, the show remains completely gripping, and painstakingly historically accurate to boot. The BBC has even confirmed it’s working on a sequel.
There’s every chance, though, that the Peter Kosminsky-directed series might have proved a little too committed to its 16th century roots. When the director spoke at a Q&A at the BFI when the series first aired, he was asked how he’d achieved the show’s lovely, candlelit effect.
His answer? Candles. “I’m glad you think it looked like candlelight, because it is candlelight,” he said.
This remarkably low-tech solution was only made possible by some incredibly high-tech cameras. The debut of the Arri Alexa camera, according to The Independent, was vital.
“What the camera sees is a great deal more than the human eye could see. We were really bumping into things, it was so dark,” Kosminsky said.
Claire Foy, who played the ill-fated Anne Boleyn in the drama, was pretty impressed. “It was the most incredible thing. I do remember looking at Gavin [Finney, director of photography] and saying ‘seriously, you can’t see anything! How on Earth are you able to do it?’”
But if you think the combination of “candles” and “bumping into things” sounds like a risk assessment nightmare, you’d be right.
“I was trying not to catch fire,” joked Claire Foy. “There were a lot of beards and wigs in that room, so it’s amazing – someone could have gone up in flames.”
Happily for the history boffins, though, that’s exactly how late medieval England should have been. Tudors, as it turns out, were just like bears – and not because they wore so many furry coats.
“They [the Tudors] were terrified of fire,” Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel told The Telegraph in 2015. “It was a fact of their lives.”
The author was particularly pleased the actors were having such a nerve-shredding time.
“It puts you in a Tudor frame of mind… Just a simple thing like that – I know it’s not simple in a technical sense, far from it – but the fact of working by candlelight does do something amazing to your imagination.”
The second season of the acclaimed drama – adapting Mantel’s final book in the trilogy, 2020’s The Mirror & The Light – should be heading into production soon, with both Mark Rylance and director Peter Kosminsky set to return. Best if the BBC stock up on fire blankets, we reckon.
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