Wolf Hall review: The BBC's new spin on Hilary Mantel's novel is dazzlingly restrained

There’s nothing else like this unnervingly quiet drama on our screens right now.

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Wolf Hall
BBC1

Cucumber
Channel 4

It’s hard to tire of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, when they keep being reinvented. This was certainly the case with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s spiffing stage productions and it is also true of the BBC’s adaptation (Wednesdays, 9pm), which puts a new spin – I use the word deliberately – on Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power.

In this instance, it’s all about casting. Although Peter Straughan, the writer of the series, received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, his background is in theatre and he has all the skills needed to deal with such courtly, interior material. Meanwhile, the series director, Peter Kosminsky, is best known for his political dramas (The Project, The Government Inspector, Britz). Power, corruption, extremism: these are his subjects. Wolf Hall is more of the same, only, in place of the press briefings, dodgy dossiers and Alastair Campbell, we’ve got a legatine court, royal decrees and Thomas Cromwell.

Mark Rylance doesn’t look like my idea of Cromwell the ruffian, Machiavel and soon-to-be king’s chief minister; he does not remotely resemble the potato face of my imagination. But this doesn’t matter. Straughan’s script is minimalist, attuned to how this is a realm in which listening is twice as important as talking, and Rylance, such a delicate actor, is more than able to suggest the inward movements of his character’s mind. He has only to turn his head half an inch for the viewer to feel his resolve, his stealth.

All around him are other, equally great actors: Anton Lesser is a fervent, whispering Thomas More, Mark Gatiss a hideously beaky Stephen Gardiner. Jonathan Pryce’s Cardinal Wolsey, rheumy-eyed and quick to ironic laughter, has an unexpected warmth, his peculiar kinship with his “monstrous servant” rising above his grandeur like incense from an altar. We haven’t yet seen much of Damian Lewis’s Henry VIII. So far, though, even the hairs of his beard shout: I am the anointed one!

At this point, the only outward reflection of burgeoning revolution, of the political and religious subversion that lies behind the series’ every murmured conversation, is the fantastic score, a sort of William Byrd/Philip Glass mash-up, repetitive and manic (I know Byrd’s dates don’t quite fit but you get the picture). Otherwise, Wolf Hall is mostly unnervingly quiet, tamped down, the better, perhaps, to emphasise the high stakes involved for its players. Also, the fear in their hearts. In the context of cartoony 21st-century television, this is quite dazzlingly restrained. What a palate cleanser. There’s nothing else like it right now and it deserves to win a tonne of awards.

And now to another TV landmark of sorts: Russell T Davies’s Channel 4 series Cucumber (Thursdays, 9pm) and its E4 offshoot, Banana (Thursdays, 10pm). Both take their name from a medical study categorising male sexual potency and this is pretty much what they’re about: sex. Henry Best (Vincent Franklin) is a slightly podgy, middle-aged gay man. No longer sleeping with his boyfriend, Lance (Cyril Nri), he is being driven halfway round the bend by the young gay men he knows. How unfair it is – and how astonishing – that, thanks to Grindr, they all have sex on tap! He’d like a bit of that. But, somewhat bafflingly, when Lance tries to persuade him to have a threesome with a boy he’s picked up, he doesn’t join in. Instead, he scarpers, drawn like a kamikaze moth to the loft squatted by Dean (Fisayo Akinade), the postboy at his office, and Freddie (Freddie Fox), his languid and preposterously handsome flatmate.

Cucumber is funny and well acted and Davies’s dialogue is as good as ever: savage, sarcastic, overblown, utterly recognisable. But the series also feels weightless to me. Unlike Queer As Folk, broadcast in 1999, when gay marriage was still a dream, it comes with no sense of jeopardy; the only thing at stake is Henry’s dignity. Yes, it nails the isolation of modern life – pre-break-up, Henry and Lance watch porn in separate rooms – but the younger characters are having such a great time that the internet surely can’t be Davies’s target.

I perked up when Henry told Lance that he didn’t ever want to marry, but Dean and his friends are into shagging, not husbands and babies, so the tension between him and them is presumably going to come down, far more pathetically, to the relative size of their stomachs rather than differences in attitude. As the minutes passed, I kept thinking that if a straight man of my acquaintance (or even one I was watching on television) left his partner to live in a loft with a load of drifting 19-year-old girls, I’d consider him a fool and a loathsome creep. Yet perhaps this is Davies’s point. Henry’s stupidity and heartlessness aren’t in doubt; his nastiness is quite a thing to behold, a mark of liberation in its own right. Being able to abhor him as a lecherous and idiotic old bastard is a sign of how far we’ve come.

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 appears in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East