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  1. Culture
12 February 2015

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

The candles are everything.

By Caroline Crampton

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.

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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:

 

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