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Novel approach

30 January 2015


STUDIES of the Reformation, and the general understanding of the origin of the Church of England, will be given a tremendous boost by the screening of Wolf Hall, BBC2's adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novels (Wednesdays).

It is widely understood that the spur to Mantel's masterpiece was her desire to counteract the pro-Roman Catholic narrative that her convent schooling had sought to inculcate. So the saint Thomas More becomes the villain of the piece, while Thomas Cromwell, the hated schemer who destroyed the monasteries, is the hero.

This partisan approach means that, as entirely objective history, her story might not be wholly accurate; but we have learned enough to appreciate that there is no such thing as "entirely objective history", and that other criteria are far more significant. By these, she succeeds triumphantly, and, on the showing of the first episode, this TV version is equally brilliant.

One crucial aspect is the language: in the novels, Mantel invented a pattern of speech that conveyed the rhythms and thought-patterns of the period. This works equally well on the small screen. Her telling of the tale is elliptical: she does not spell out every single twist. We are drawn in, we participate in the drama. We have enough clues to work out more or less what is going on, but have to do some of the work ourselves.

A dramatisation of the struggles of Henry VIII's court is hardly new on television, and it is worth considering what makes this one superior to the others. The social set-up is right; we sense immediately that, in the 16th century, people did live differently from the way we do today; that far looser households were the norm, defined by kinship, influence, and patronage - but that these enabled just as deeply felt emotional bonds as we cherish.

People lived essentially public lives: all rooms were thoroughfares, and there was nearly always someone around watching and overhearing. They thought differently, and thought that different things mattered.

The touchstone for us is how religion and faith are depicted, and here again, I think they got this pretty much right. Cardinal Wolsey's prayers, for all his worldliness, are heartfelt and genuine. The late-medieval Catholic devotion is real, and the fervour of the Protestant reformers is by no means portrayed as the more generous option. This has started brilliantly, and this view of the break with Rome gave a splendid perspective to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

There was no space last week to report on The Joy of Mozart (BBC4, 14 January). This was a far more incisive programme than the saccharine title suggested: Tom Service gave a personal overview, giving, as it were, a testimony to the power of Mozart's music in his own life. We heard from performers, conductors, and the curators of the places where Mozart lived and died, and heard the very instruments that he played.

Religion - at least, the Catholicism of 18th-century Austria - came off rather badly. Freemasonry offered a better encouragement for the warm-hearted humanism of this greatest of operatic composers.

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