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TV review: Hilary Mantel: Return to Wolf Hall, Noughts and Crosses, and Liar

13 March 2020

BBC/Oxford Film and TV

Dame Hilary Mantel Hilary Mantel on Budleigh Salterton beach

Dame Hilary Mantel Hilary Mantel on Budleigh Salterton beach

THE English Reformation, such is the power of televised novels, is seen nowa­days as a work of heroic en­­deav­­our on the part of previously reviled Thomas Cromwell. Hilary Mantel: Return to Wolf Hall (BBC2, Saturday) ex­­plored the well­springs and determin­ation that fed this remarkable work of his­torical fiction, which not only en­­gineered the volte-face, but raised an entire genre to the heights of serious lit­er­ature (Features, 2 August 2019).

It was a film worthy of its subject — poetic, allusive, moving in its use of contemporary black-and-white newsreel. Mantel’s childhood pro­vided drama enough: her real father erased from her life as her mother decamps with her lover, and there­after having to live as this new man’s daughter; the uncle who served 18 months in prison, cover­ing up for his brother’s minor crime.

The wholesale demolition of St Thomas More’s sanctity might be laid at the door of the sadistic nuns who made school a misery for this brilliant child. Distrust of those in power, and the liberation offered by em­­bracing al­­ternative, conflicting nar­rat­ives can all be traced in her work: but, of course, her genius is far greater than the sum of these influ­ences.

This was a ghost story, celebrating Mantel’s conviction of realities be­­yond the purely material, her abso­lute ab­­sorption in the world that she creates (informed, of course, by meticulous research), her sense that the book “was waiting for her” and could only be written in the present tense, her only possible standpoint “from behind Thomas Cromwell’s eyes”.

A new series, Noughts and Crosses (BBC1, Thursdays), offers a different turning-upside-down of Britain’s story. Here, black Africans have been in power for centuries, lording it over a white underclass that is forced to perform all of society’s menial and degrading tasks.

Its shock lies in seeing the daily racism and prejudice that blight lives presented in mirror image, the fris­­son of Elastoplast being not pink but brown. The daughter of the hard-line Home Secretary (black) and his housekeeper’s son (white) fall in love; will they survive longer than Romeo and Juliet? It is powerful and looks gorgeous, but the story breaks no new ground and bears slender analysis. Surely, over all those years, masters and servants would have produced a third stratum of society.

The second series of ITV’s crime drama Liar launched on Monday of last week. Her vile rapist’s body might have been found on the marshes, but Laura still cannot escape his malign shadow. A new, hard-bitten detective arrests her for his murder. Its strength is Laura’s complexity: she’s not perfect, but flawed and impetuous, damaging her own plausibility by unrestrained anger and despair. This feels real and in­­novative: TV hardly ever dares por­­­­­tray how crime wreaks raw and bitter personal degradation.

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