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Wolf Hall Wednesday: Episode 1... Put on your red dress baby.

Put on your red dress baby cuz we're going out tonight

I've been on a Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies reading jag, wanting to get both of Hilary Mantel's books under my belt before this past Sunday's debut episode of Wolf Hall. Now that we've seen our first episode I'll stick to my Wolf Hall Wednesday schedule to chat about the show. I won't be reviewing or recapping per se; I mostly like to point out areas that I particularly enjoyed—or didn't—and whatever else strikes me as something I want to highlight. 

First: I'm glad I read the books. While an awful lot of pages were covered in Episode 1, and an awful lot of characters disposed of quite quickly,  I can't imagine how adrift I'd feel without having read them. And as I mentioned in one of my long meandering Wolf Hall Wednesday posts, the first book, Wolf Hall was bit of a slog for me, very challenging and tough to read, in part, because it was confusing knowing who exactly was who. Close to 1000 pages later —between Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (very much more exciting) — and I've got a better handle on that. Still I noticed the production used a fair amount of title cards to help us understand where we were in the timeline, very helpful as they had quite a few flashbacks. Beyond that, I liked it a great deal. It's more Downton Abbey than Game of Thrones; what it lacks in excitement, it makes up for in intelligence and authenticity. Every little detail is perfect, done with the BBC's usual attention to detail in its period pieces; from the shirt Cromwell's wife is embroidering for her son, to the plate of food Cromwell eats bit by bit with his fingers, licking them delicately in between each bite, to all the beautiful leather bound, laced-up manuscripts and illuminated prayer books. The fact that most sets are not sets at all but the palaces, abbeys, manors and stately homes of England in use at the time supercharges the story with built in authenticity, giving the action a credibility that completely takes you in. I'm sure there are historical inaccuracies in Wolf Hall, but watching this production, not only would I not know, I wouldn't care.

3 Things I Liked

Thomas Cromwell's character. And his caterpillar-like eyebrows

As the masterful manipulator he is very low key; the way you'd expect a good negotiator to be. The screaming, the sarcasm, the bluster, the threats were left to the other characters while Mark Rylance as Cromwell kept his calm, almost expressionless, visage. Although his eyebrows seemed to have a life of their own. His facial expressions—or lack thereof—is not to be mistaken for boring. On the contrary, I found myself drawn in by it, seeking out every little crosshatched line on his face. That placid exterior clearly drove some characters just a little crazy, like the Duke of Norfolk (Bernard Hill, Theoden in The Lord of the Rings movies) who sputters "Why are you such a, a, such a...pperson!"

Why indeed, but when Cromwell is with his family, he lights up, and takes delight in the simple pleasures of being a husband and father. He's tender and kind and quite loving; my only regret is that we didn't get to see more of his relationship with his wife and daughters.

Natural lighting

I'd heard some chatter that viewers of the program on BBC felt the show was too dark, not in tone, in quality of light. It wasn't. Director Peter Kosminsky and cinematographer, Gavin Finney, opted to shoot using only natural light so the nighttime scenes, lit by candles, glowed with a beautiful softness lighting up the main action, leaving the background in the dark, very much like a painting by Caravaggio or George de la Tour. I thought it stunning while it also contributed to a feeling of danger. Nothing good happens in the dark, right? Nothing good is happening in King Henry VIII's court.

I am lucky enough to have this gorgeous George de la Tour painting, Magdelen,
 at LACMA, a five minute walk from where I live.


Well, how could you not? All the lush fabrics, rich velvets, sumptuous satins and silks. The layers and layers of clothing, cloaks and capes and veils and everything swishing this way and that. Anyone who has ever worn a cape, especially a red cape, knows its' power. We flew to New York when my son was four, and he kept on his red superman cape for the entire plane ride. He relished in the power of that red cape! While I was struck by the abundance of scarlet, so vivid, the color was very much in favor at the time due to what were thought of as its' health giving benefits! It was also the color of the elites. According to the BBC —
Henry VIII passed four separate pieces of sumptuary legislation during his reign. A strict code governed the wearing of "costly apparel", and red was one of the colours most rigidly controlled. No Englishman under the rank of knight of the garter was allowed to wear crimson velvet in their gowns, coats or any other part of their clothing. A breach of this rule could result in the offending garment being confiscated and a fine of 40 shillings.
The issue was fundamentally who should be allowed to flaunt their disposable wealth. Red was by far the most expensive of dyes, and velvet the costliest of cloths. Red cloth in this period was dyed using four main dyestuffs - madder, kermes, cochineal and lichen dyes. Of these the most expensive was kermes, a dye made from the desiccated bodies of insects, which produced a luscious, deep crimson. Imported from Spain and Portugal, it was subject to heavy import duties.

Color is so powerful, even today, red is seen as energizing. We're going to take a closer look at the costumes on Sunday when my Slacker Sunday video will be a featurette with the costume designer, Joanna Eatwell.

What didn't I like?

A little too jumpy back and forth in history leaving the viewer a little unsure where and when we are at times. I also found the profusion of characters confusing but that's no one's fault but history's. Lots of men named Thomas. Lots of women named Mary and Jane. 

Here's a short television commercial for Episode two.

EPISODES are now available to stream on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu & googleplay