J D Davies

Wolf in Musketeers’ Clothing

So there’s this history-based TV programme, based on a famous historical novel, which has a capricious King who’s desperate for a male heir, a flighty Queen called Anne who’s prone to sleeping with other men, an all-powerful Cardinal who dies part way through the story, a ruthless and charismatic royal advisor with divided loyalties, all of it shot in locations to die for –

Oh come on, people, how much more proof do you need that Wolf Hall is blatantly plagiarised from The Musketeers?

Before I suffer a Wicker Man fate at the hands of a rampaging mob of enraged Tudoristas led by Hilary Mantel in all her most terrifying Thatcher-assassinating fury, please bear with me. The odd parallels between the plots of the heavyweight adaptation of a double Booker-winning modern classic, which began airing on the BBC last week, and the lightweight froth of the Beeb’s Friday night Dumas ‘reboot’, is, of course, due entirely to the fact that early modern states often had very similar structures and concerns. Hence the ever-present pressure on monarchs to perpetuate the male lines of their dynasties, the political pre-eminence of high ranking churchmen (better educated and better connected than virtually all of a nation’s aristocracy, let alone the population at large), and so forth. True, any resemblance between the brilliantly drawn Thomas Cromwell of Hilary Mantel, as realised with equal brilliance by Mark Rylance, and the ‘panto villain’ Comte de Rochefort in the Musketeers – either the original books or the current series – is purely coincidental. On the other hand, the ‘arch-fixer’ Cromwell’s multiple loyalties to the King, to Cardinal Wolsey, to the idea of religious reform, and so forth, and the BBC Rochefort’s tangled allegiances to Queen Anne and to his supposed Spanish masters, make them brothers under the skin.

King Louis XIII and the Comte de Rochefort discuss a cunning plan. Hang on…or is this the other one…?

This, of course, is where the similarity ends. While The Musketeers is enjoyable mindless fun, Wolf Hall is simply classic television – one of those once-in-a-generation experiences that completely change perceptions of what dramatised history on TV should be like. For example, I gather that a few disgruntled viewers took to the Twitterverse to complain that the lighting was too subdued. No; the simple fact is that the lighting on every other historical TV programme they’d ever seen was far too bright. (And if you don’t believe me, try a candlelit dinner in a really old building, or a candlelit evensong or concert in a cathedral. Or just wait for a power cut, light your own candles, and take some selfies.) Add such scrupulous attention to an authentic period ‘feel’ to subtle but brilliant acting from an outstanding cast, and a highly intelligent script that – wait for it – doesn’t tell the audience everything in easy soundbites, and assumes said audience actually has some basic level of prior historical knowledge, and you really do have TV history the way it should be made.

The same is true of the thorny issue of factual accuracy. Both Mantel and Peter Straughan, who adapted the two books for TV, stick closely to the known facts, and especially to the known chronology. The Musketeers, on the other hand, happily drives a coach and horses – no, the entire French army artillery train – through chronological exactitude, although it has to be said, this wasn’t necessarily entirely of the writer’s making. After all, who could have known that Cardinal Richelieu would have to die twelve years early in order to take command of a time machine? Let’s just hope that, before the BBC inevitably films the forthcoming third Mantel book, The Mirror and the Light, Mark Rylance isn’t made an offer he can’t refuse and goes off to Hollywood to star in Transformers VII. Much has been made of Wolf Hall‘s one conscious departure from historical accuracy that wasn’t driven purely by budget issues (the latter including, for instance, the distinct shortage of boats on the Thames, the M25 of the sixteenth century): namely, the unduly diminished size of the actors’ codpieces. No doubt someone at the BBC took an executive decision that the risk of having delicate spinsters in rose-clad country cottages fainting at the sight of enormous protuberances, and subsequently recovering sufficiently to write indignant letters of protest to the Mail and Telegraph, was too great to contemplate. For once, I tend to agree. Having lived through the early 1970s as a teenager, and – yes – having worn the flares and ludicrously vast collars that characterised the epoch, I concede that certain fashion excesses of the past should never, ever, be portrayed on screen in their full and unadulerated awfulness. That apart, though, Wolf Hall passed pretty much every test, even if – and despite all his protestations to the contrary – Damian Lewis’s Henry VIII of 1529 really is a tad too skinny. As far as I was concerned, the ultimate ‘much respect’ moment in terms of the production’s quest for authenticity was the ZZ Top beard on the entirely mute actor playing the Papal Legate, Cardinal Campeggio. Which means someone, somewhere, knew that Cardinal Campeggio looked like this.

Cover art of ZZ Top’s little known album about the nature of the transformation of the host during the eucharist


Overall, then, Wolf Hall‘s levels of accuracy are pretty astonishing by modern TV standards: for example, contrast it with The Tudors, set in the same period and inevitably containing largely the same characters, but bearing about the same degree of resemblance to authenticity as my village football team does to Manchester United. Indeed, Wolf Hall looks so right that even the omni-hating Dr David Starkey might conceivably give it the thumbs up. (For those who’ve never heard of him, Dr Starkey was once a moderately competent historian of aspects of early Tudor government. Would that he had been content with such a distinction.) Of course, no historical film or TV programme – or novel, come to that – can ever be completely ‘accurate’, in the narrow sense of the word: the real people simply didn’t say those words, in those accents, in those precise rooms in those precise buildings, and so on. It’s that old fact/fiction distinction once again. All that a screenwriter or novelist can do is to create as powerful a sense of the times, and of the people who lived in them, as they possibly can; and in that regard, both Hilary Mantel and the TV adaption of her books succeed brilliantly.


At short notice, I’ve agreed to do some teaching for the next few weeks to cover staff illness at Bedford Modern School, where I worked for many years. I’m not yet sure whether this will affect my ability to blog as regularly as usual, so there may or may not be a post next week – updates on Twitter!