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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 assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit