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
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