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Wolf Hall’s £20,000 candle budget was worth every penny

The candles are everything.

Looking at Wolf Hall over the last few weeks has been a source of great joy to me. Of course, I’m also watching for the dialogue and performances – Mark Rylance in particular is astounding – but the way the adaptation looks on screen is really what stays with me.

The most recent episode, the fourth in the six-part series, provided an especially stunning example of this. The adaptation has a scene in which Cromwell is sitting for a portrait, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. The resulting painting is probably the most recognisable image we have of him, well-known to most from their schooldays studying the Tudors.

Casually, without making a big fuss about it, the TV adaptation exactly recreated this moment. Everything from Rylance’s pose to the lighting to the wallpaper behind him was just perfect:

Let’s look at that a bit closer:

Even the tilt of Rylance’s head is exact – an illustration of how very precise and studied his performance is, for all its apparent naturalism. You can see this scene for yourself on iPlayer at about 36 minutes in.

Just for good measure, here’s what is happening on the other side of the canvas:

Holbein was arguably the foremost image-maker of the sixteenth century, and a very important visual source for Hilary Mantel. Speaking on an episode of Neil MacGregor’s Germany: Memories of a Nation radio series devoted to the Hanseatic League, she described the artist’s direct style producing paintings that are “like a mugshot, done by a genius”. This is surely a style that chimes well with Thomas Cromwell, the ruthless pragmatist.

As we see Holbein painting the portrait in the drama, there’s a lot of natural light coming in through the windows behind him (as there doubtless would have been at the real sitting, so he could see what he was doing). But the most remarkable scenes in Wolf Hall are the ones that are almost completely candlelit – I’m thinking particularly of the sequence in the second episode where Cromwell is summoned to Henry in the middle of the night.

All the action, from when the messenger first comes knocking...

...to the conversation with the king...

...to Cromwell’s safe arrival home and his encounter with his sister-in-law...

...takes place entirely by candelight. This is a shadowy, unknowable world where you must feel your way if you are to stay on the right side of power.

Given how frequently they are used, it really comes as no surprise that the candle budget for the programme was £20,000 – money well spent, I’d say. Speaking to Kirsty Lang on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, Wolf Hall’s director of photography Graham Finney explained why the candles were so important (interview begins at 12.30):

It was a solution to a problem, really – Peter [Kosminsky, the director] wanted to film the whole of Wolf Hall in a documentary style, hand held, that often meant walking into a room and seeing the whole room and then turning around and seeing the other part of the room. In a Grade I listed building, there’s nowhere to put a light and so we thought, well, can we do it with candlelight? We did some early tests and it was extraordinary how much we could get away with.

He goes on to explain that Kosminsky was “blown away” by the effect of all the candles in the Globe’s recent production of The Duchess of Malfi in the newly-opened Sam Wanamaker Theatre. Luckily, camera technology is now such that it’s possible to film with this kind of light without even having to splash out on particularly specialised equipment. Finney explained:

The camera we used is an Arriflex Alexa, a high end digital camera used in feature films and top dramas. We used that in concert with a new type of lens that came out last year, very very fast, which means it’s very light sensitive, it sucks in light – made by Leica. The two together delivered more than we thought they would, it’s really quite extraordinary. You could see more than your eye could see.

There you have it – Wolf Hall looks even better on screen than it would have done for the Tudors who were there at the time.

Now listen to Caroline Crampton and Tom Gatti discuss Wolf Hall on the NS podcast:

 

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt