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Lupine reflections

20 February 2015

I ENJOYED the book Wolf Hall. I had never read writing like that before: it was remarkable, a spiritual experience, and humbling for one occasionally in the same game. Hilary Mantel is a literary Messi (but without the awkward tax-evasion charges hanging over her).

So, when the BBC announced the proposed TV series, there was some trepidation. The old adage "Good books make bad films" is generally true: literary and cinematic genius are only distantly related. But the writer Peter Straughan, who also adapted Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, has done a fine job. Mantel called it "a miracle of elegant compression", and revealed that one of the show's biggest fans is the Prince of Wales. But, then, does he have inside knowledge? It's possible.

The new biography of Prince Charles by the journalist Catherine Mayer says that a former employee nicknamed his household "Wolf Hall" because of its scheming atmosphere. Mantel, however, when asked about similarities between the modern royal household and the Tudor court, was sceptical: "I think there may be an element of exaggeration."

But I digress, and must now face the criticism of Wolf Hall which arrived over Sunday lunch last week. My friend was angry, telling me that, apart from Thomas Cromwell, the characters were confusing: "We don't get to know them; I don't know who they are half the time." And this is someone who once taught history.

It is not a claim true to my experience. I think that we do know the other characters in a way; we glimpse their reality sharply, if briefly. But I understand the complaint: they come and go in an elusive way. So the question: what is Mantel trying to do?

For me, she is echoing the approach of Rembrandt - probably a better comparison than Messi. Many of Rembrandt's pictures are rather dark and unfinished around the edges. What is happening in them? We cannot always be sure; we don't get the full picture. But, as far as Rembrandt is concerned, we do: the painter is focusing on what interests him, and asking us to look there. That is the picture, and I feel Mantel does the same.

Cromwell interests her: this is his story; and the other characters, while as real as steel, provide the setting, the scheming climate, the relational nightmare in which he must survive and evolve. There is a meditative, focusing quality to the work which says: "Look here."

This is a problem for the modern TV viewer, who demands that the next scene or event should happen quickly. TV companies know this, which is why they are advertising the next programme three seconds into the credits of the departing one. They do not trust the audience to handle a reflective pause in proceedings, and they panic. But Wolf Hall doesn't panic. It removes both haste and distraction, and, in the half-light, says: "Look here."

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