The question of historical truth comes around again and again. The Imitation Game ruffled feathers for, amongst other things depicting Turing as possibly involved in (or knew about and turned a blind eye to) treachery when there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that this might have been the case. People have complained that there wasn’t enough science in The Theory of Everything, without stopping to think that the film is an adaptation of Jane Hawking’s book – it is her version of events not his. Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner provoked tumultuous critical delight over Timothy Spall’s snorting, grunting performance, which I personally found grotesquely over-played. ‘But he was supposed to be just like that,’ people cried in response to my criticism. ‘Based on what exactly?’ I asked.
We can get so wrapped up in the idea of accuracy that it is easy to forget such a thing is impossible. With Wolf Hall it’s all been about the authenticity, with costume designers talking about how they only used fabrics of the period and correct fastenings – mostly pins, in case you were wondering and not zips, which was the accusation levelled (hotly denied, I might add) at the recent White Queen adaptation. But, I ask myself are they all going commando because as all self-respecting Tudorphiles will know, knickers hadn’t been invented in the sixteenth century.
The ‘authentic’ lighting (mainly candlelight for interiors and nothing outside) has meant a good deal of viewers grumbling about not being able to see anything. ‘Ah but that is how it would have been,’ come the replies. That may be so but to our twenty-first century eyes, used to the brightness of the present, our response to it is jarring and confusing. A Tudor would not have responded in such a way; it would have been the norm, their eyes would have been accustomed to a dimmer world, more in tune with the seasons and fluctuating hours of daylight. What I’m trying to get at is that absolute authenticity remains out of reach, like Plato’s perfect forms, and to try so hard at it can be a futile project.
I like the gloom of Wolf Hall, not because of its historical veracity, but mainly because it works with the shadiness of its protagonist, though unfortunately in some of the exterior scenes, shot in the gloaming it looks, on my brand new super-duper-HD TV, rather than atmospherically shadowy, depressingly redolent of low-tech BBC costume drama from the 1970s. But I sympathise with the intention even if the outcome is not necessarily wholly successful because I find myself noticing other things, like the puzzling absence of mud in the exterior scenes and the perfectly manicured gravel driveways and the dog that looked suspiciously like a cockapoo and Anne pronouncing his name Purcoy phonetically rather than the French way (Pur-cwa) as she would have done. Now I'm just being a pedant and the point I'm trying to make is that none of it really matters; what matters is the effect it has.
Then of course there’s the question of Cromwell and his character. Views on this are polarised. A historian friend believes Mantel’s Cromwell is too modern in sensibility. It seems to be Mantel’s project to explore the possibility that Cromwell was a remarkable self-made man, and yes, darkly complex and Machiavellian but not just, to borrow Dairmud MacCulloch’s term, ‘a thug in a doublet’; whereas revisionist historians seek to expose the Reformation, the promotion of which was Cromwell’s life’s work, as an act of monstrous destruction akin to the acts of fundamentalists in North Africa today. We will never find a definitive truth but what is good is that texts such as Wolf Hall open up discussion.
What a TV show like Wolf Hall is attempting to do is to set itself above the usual costume drama. It’s narrative is convoluted, it refuses to spoon feed us, makes us work hard, makes us think. It says ‘I am authentic,’ suggesting that Jonathan Ryhs Meyers in his hopelessly anachronistic, yet very fetching, faux-Tudor gear, is not – I couldn’t possibly comment. But when we watch TV we know that only a few feet away is a fellow with a big camera and that we’ve seen these actors in other roles, that they’re all pretending. We want to suspend our disbelief, we’re in on the sleight of hand, and do we care if they are wearing knickers? I suspect not.