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.