Hilary Mantel: BBC’s Wolf Hall must learn from The Tudors’ mistakes

"As soon as you decide it's too complicated for the viewer or history is an inconvenient shape, you fall into a cascade of errors which ends in nonsense"

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Historical accuracy in fiction is crucial, author Hilary Mantel has told an audience at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. 

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Speaking with reference to her novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, their subsequent stage productions and the upcoming BBC adaptation, the writer stressed the importance of not under-estimating the intelligence of her readers and audience. 

“It is perfectly possible to do good history and good drama – they are not mutually contradictory,” she said. “That is vital as an understanding, as a basis to begin work. Because as soon as you decide this is too complicated for the viewer or history is an inconvenient shape – ‘I’ll just tidy it up’ – you fall into a cascade of errors which ends in nonsense.” 

To prove her point, Mantel made reference to what she called the “big, all-singing, all-dancing American TV series The Tudors” – a Showtime drama starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers which aired between 2007 and 2011 on BBC2.

“There was a great puzzle there because it was like good angels and bad angels. Someone had done the most terrific amount of research – it showed in small details – but the bigger picture… At some point, for instance, someone had decided it was too complex for Henry VIII to have two sisters so they rolled them into one. Then they had to find a fictitious King for her to marry so I think they invented a King of Portugal unbeknown to history.

“It all stems from not trusting the intelligence of the viewer. I think the problem was they thought there were too many Marys in the story.”

The two-time Booker Prize winner also spoke of her difficulties combating the assumptions made about the historical fiction genre. “The historical novel has itself undergone a revolution – it has always been a highly sophisticated and self-conscious form but it had begun to be associated with bodice rippers.

“And then there came another fashion where you’d know historical romance by the fact that it featured a woman with half a face. They didn’t want to give you a picture of the protagonist so they’d sliced a bit of her off and this was meant to intrigue you.” 

As for the actual content, Mantel lamented “this idea that it was a woman’s genre, it was inauthentic, it was slushy – it was never valid. It was very hard to jump out of those stereotypes.” 

Incidentally, any eagle-eyed observers at yesterday’s Cheltenham Festival might have spotted the star of BBC2’s Wolf Hall – Damian Lewis – and his stage counterpart, Nathaniel Parker, also strolling around the site, before appearing at their own sessions. “If you’d been around at the right time, you could have seen both Henrys walking around,” observed Mantel. “I just said hello to Damian Lewis who is Henry on screen and Henry on stage, Nathaniel Parker, was here at an event earlier.” 

Mantel’s two stage productions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies transferred from Stratford to London’s Aldwych Theatre earlier this year and closed last weekend after 259 performances ahead of a move to Broadway next year. 

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BBC2’s six-part series, set for broadcast in 2015, was adapted from both books and filmed in the UK in May and June with Mantel involved in the scripting process. Featuring alongside Lewis are Mark Rylance (playing Thomas Cromwell), David Bradley, Mark Gatiss, Jonathan Pryce, Jessica Raine, Joanne Whalley and Thomas Brodie-Sangster.