Published: 13:31, 14 January 2015
BBC period drama Wolf Hall not only relives Henry VIII’s courtship of Anne Boleyn in Kent, it also represents a homecoming to the county for one of its star actors, Mark Rylance.
Henry VIII’s court was a notoriously ruthless and violent playground, with the drama conducted across some of the most beautiful locations in Tudor England.
Kent’s Penshurst Place, near Tonbridge, was one such example, used by Henry as a base from which to pursue his second wife, Anne Boleyn, who lived close by.
It’s no surprise, then, that the BBC’s big-budget, six-part period drama Wolf Hall – based on the Booker-prize winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel – has used Penshurst Place and Gardens as the backdrop for sequences featuring not only Anne, played by Claire Foy, but the central character of Thomas Cromwell, played by Ashford-born thespian Mark Rylance.
Cromwell rose from being a lowly blacksmith’s son to the closest adviser of Henry VIII, who is played by Damian Lewis.
Of filming scenes in Penshurst’s Long Gallery, Rylance said: “One knew that hundreds of years before, Henry and Anne had walked in that very room: I was aware that Anne had looked out [of] these windows.”
Known to many as the greatest actor of his generation, Bafta and Olivier-winning Rylance may have started life in Kent, but moved to America as a child, when his parents emigrated to work in Milwaukee. He returned to the UK to study at Rada in London as a young adult. Now aged 54, he has forged a stellar stage and screen career that has ranged from artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe to TV work in Hamlet and Leonardo. He also appeared in movie The Other Boleyn Girl and is in the upcoming big screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s BFG. Here, he speaks of how he brought Hilary Mantel’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell to life for TV, via a script written by Oscar-nominated Peter Straughan and directed by Bafta-winning director Peter Kosminsky.
How did you prepare for a role of this magnitude?
“You read the books. When you have such fantastic detailed books behind the script, it makes sense to use them and I read them twice. I’d check each scene in the script with the book. The book is so much about what Cromwell is thinking, so I really made a study of that. I tend to try and make lists of everything the characters say about themselves and about others. Where the lists are too big and too long, I marked particularly eloquent passages – there’s a beautiful passage where Cromwell describes what it is to serve Henry.”
You are known primarily as a theatre and film actor. What made you want to be part of a TV drama?
“My wife [director and composer Claire van Kampen] had read the books and said they were very good, and the scripts I saw initially were very good. I didn’t know about the depth of the character at that point. But there was a lot of change in it. ”
What is Cromwell’s goal?
“He’s always playing to win what he feels will be the most beneficial outcome. He chooses to serve the top dog, in a very violent pack. So he has to be thinking, ‘What’s the best outcome for the king?’ I think, personally, [that] would be not to kill Anne Boleyn. But, like a guard for a mafia man, he knows that if he doesn’t do it, someone else will.”
What was it about Cromwell that enabled him to rise in the hierarchy?
“He was gifted with an incredible memory. That’s a particular form of intelligence. He also had a canny sense for judging whether people were honest by looking in their eyes. He rarely misjudges characters. He probably would have been a champion chess player in that he’s usually seven or eight moves ahead of the other players. Also, personal tragedy has a certain determining effect on his emotions. It gives him a certain kind of recklessness, or nihilism about his own fate. He’s not particularly attached to anything or anyone.”
What was his relationship with authority?
“I think he’s able to see authority as a game where you can play the rules, and you can call people on the rules. Cardinal Wolsey [played by Jonathan Pryce] teaches him that. He’s pretty suspicious of authority. He’s a heretic, isn’t he? He certainly sees that the situation has been repressive of intelligent people, like himself who would like to be judged on their merits.”
Is he a brilliant actor who plays the role that’s required in front of whoever is the audience?
“That’s a good point. He’s different when he goes back to see his father than when he’s talking to Norfolk, Anne Boleyn or his children. I think Hilary [Mantel] has remarked that he’s very gentle with women and young children. And he’s a very, very tough prosecuting attorney with men.”
Why do audiences find this period so endlessly fascinating?
“It must be something to do with the very human nature of the king [Henry VIII], I think. He’s a very human character, he has a lot of human frailties, a lot of situations that many
of us face – of the conflict between our relationship to society, our public role, whether that society’s just our family, our extended family, our workplace, our country or international.“It’s the whole idea of divine kings, or of these rulers who lead us. We’re fascinated, aren’t we? When we find out actually what was going on with Kennedy or Clinton, or eventually find out what was going on in Obama’s mind, it’s riveting. We may know more, eventually, about Queen Elizabeth II. Right now, she keeps her cards very close to her chest!”
AS SEEN ON TV...
Wolf Hall is the latest in a long line of starring roles for Penshurst Place.
The medieval Baron’s Hall has previously appeared in Merlin, The Other Boleyn Girl, Anne of the Thousand Days, and the house and grounds most recently featured in The Great Fire on ITV in autumn.
Manager Ben Thomas said: “We were thrilled that Penshurst Place was used as a filming location for Wolf Hall, particularly as it was once owned by Henry VIII and has barely changed in 600 years. The Long Gallery, one of the locations used to film scenes at Whitehall, remains historically accurate to the Tudor period. In common with other nobility over the ages, Henry would have used the Long Gallery to walk and take exercise in inclement weather while engaging in conversation with courtiers.”
Set in the Weald of Kent, Penshurst Place has stood on the banks of the River Medway since the 14th century, when the Baron’s Hall was built as a country retreat for the Lord Mayor of London.
Penshurst Place was forfeited to King Henry VIII in 1521. It was used by Henry as a hunting lodge and as a base from which to court Anne Boleyn, whose childhood home was at nearby Hever Castle. In 1552, the property was gifted, by Henry’s son Edward VI, to a member of the Sidney family, in whose hands it has remained ever since.
It is currently owned by Philip Sidney, 2nd Viscount De L’Isle MBE, Her Majesty’s Lord Lieutenant of Kent.
The historic gardens are as old as the house, with records dating back to 1346. The formal gardens were laid out in Elizabethan times and have remained remarkably true to their early design. More than a mile of yew hedging separates an 11-acre walled garden into a series of ‘rooms’. Each garden boasts variety in form, foliage and bloom, which ensures visitors a continuous display from spring to autumn.
Dover Castle was another location used for the filming of Wolf Hall, standing in as the exterior for both the Tower of London and Calais Castle.
Dover Castle’s Isobel Uden says: “The scenes show the execution of Anne Boleyn in front of the Great Tower and the arrival of Thomas Cromwell through the King’s Gate. They also filmed from the roof of the Great Tower, representing Calais Castle, where the ghost of Cromwell’s father appears.”
The filming took place over two days, with a set built next to the Great Tower to form the execution site.
Wolf Hall is a six-part drama that starts on BBC2 on Wednesday, January 21 at 9pm. Visit www.bbc.co.uk/programmes
More by this authorJo Roberts