Mark Rylance plays Wolf Hall's scheming sidekick Thomas Cromwell with lots of bite

The BBC has adapted Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel for the small screen

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The Independent Culture

Next week, on Wednesday, the long-awaited adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall arrives on BBC2.

Viewers unfamiliar with Mantel’s work might assume that the focus of this Henrician court saga is King Henry VIII and certainly it’s the face of Henry (played by Homeland’s Damian Lewis) which stares out at us from the cover of this week’s Radio Times. In fact, the hero of Wolf Hall is a mere king's side-kick, Thomas Cromwell, played by revered theatre actor Mark Rylance. It won’t be the first time a backstage maneuverer has found a spotlight on the small-screen.

The first episode of Wolf Hall shows how this blacksmith’s son from Putney attained his power and influence in court. He thinks strategically, flatters when necessary, trusts no one and often quotes from Machiavelli’s The Prince - the set-text for all would-be puppet-masters. Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne) from 1980s sitcom Yes, Minister would recognise much of himself in this, as would Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the arch-manipulator in House of Cards, which will soon return for a third series. If Blackadder had ever made a series set in the first half of the 16th century (instead of during the later reign of Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I) the conniving nobleman would certainly have found a role model in Thomas Cromwell.

We love these schemers for their heads, not their hearts. They wield their power so deftly that other characters are often manipulated without their knowledge, but we, the audience, know. The privilege of this insight takes on a special thrill when, as in House of Cards, the character turns to face the camera and invites us into their confidence with a conspiratorial whisper. These pen-pusher and bureaucrats might not seem like natural dramatic heroes, but when it comes to plotting, they’re always two steps ahead.

Minority report sees the big picture

If you’ve ever worked in a large, corporate organisation, you’ll be familiar with guideline documents. These are the employee conduct rulebooks which never seem to materialise until after someone has committed a heinous foul-up. It might all have been avoided, say HR, if only they’d consulted Section 54b, third paragraph down. 

Perhaps guideline documents will loose their reputation for uselessness, now that Channel 4 has unveiled its ‘360° Diversity Charter’ with all the grandeur of Moses descending from Mont Sinai. The new targets require women, ethnic minorities (BAME) and the disabled to be given leading roles across all programmes. The channel also pledges that by 2020, 20 per cent of staff will be BAME and six per cent LGBT. So far, so fantastical, but here comes the key practical difference; execs, including C4 chief David Abraham, will find their salaries cut if they fail to comply. It also helps that Channel 4 can already point to some excellent programming which fulfils the brief, such as review show The Last Leg and new drama series Indian Summer.

There was more guidelines-related controversy over at the BBC last week, when, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, Question Time presenter David Dimbleby read aloud from the BBC's editorial guidelines: “The prophet Mohamed must not be represented in any shape or form.” This supposed ban was met with outrage, until the next day when the BBC issued a statement of clarification; It turns out depictions of the prophet are permitted, they just haven’t updated their guidelines yet.

To avoid further confusion of this nature, the BBC might want to follow Channel 4’s lead and commit to diversity quotas (as opposed to just the diversity fund they announced in June). It’s much easier to confidently judge the mood of your audience when your staff accurately reflects that audience.

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