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

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood