Wolf Hall: 5 Things You Need To Know

Why has this Tudor tale already been hailed as one of the best period dramas ever made? And what star names should you look out for?

Wolf Hall


Let's be honest, Henry VIII has become a bit of a caricature in most people's minds: a big scary British bogeyman, swaggering around and cutting off wives' heads. He's like someone from a fairy tale rather than actual history, so it's no wonder he gets a rather over-the-top treatment on screen (remember Jonathan Rhys Meyers giving us a sort of boy band version of Henry in the soap-like The Tudors?).

Wolf Hall isn't like that. Wolf Hall is a refreshingly serious and subtle take on the earth-shaking reign of this infamous monarch, focusing on the secret scheming and deadly rivalries that took place in his court. Based on a pair of prize-winning novels from Hilary Mantel, both of which were hailed as instant masterpieces when first released, it's a satisfyingly grown-up drama which is even better watched the second or third time round.


Our leading man isn't even Henry at all. It's one of the most important Britons most people haven't heard of: Thomas Cromwell, the man who rose from humble, working class beginnings to become the king's most trusted advisor. Cromwell played a crucial part in Henry's ill-fated marriage to Anne Boleyn and England's earth-shattering break from Catholicism.

Cromwell is a truly fascinating and enigmatic figure who still arouses fierce debate today. Mark Rylance plays him in Wolf Hall as a brooding, haunted schemer who whispers in the ears of England's most powerful men, like a mobster's consigliere or, in the words of one reviewer, "the world's most dangerous therapist". As depicted by Rylance, this Thomas Cromwell ranks among the most complex heroes/anti-heroes of television, right up there with Tony Soprano, Don Draper or Walter White. Except with more spectacular clothing than any of that lot.


Watching Wolf Hall is as close as we'll come to literally going back in time and peeking on the Tudors going about their lives. That's not just because of the impeccably designed costumes and the incredible filming locations in authentic Tudor-era abodes. It's also because the series was literally shot by candlelight rather than artificial studio lighting.

Filming it this way wasn't easy, with actors literally bumping into things, and some even worried their clothes would be set on fire. But their efforts paid off handsomely - no costume drama has ever looked as sumptuous and "real" as this, with each scene looking like an oil painting that's come magically to life.


Even those of us who snoozed through history lessons at school probably know the bare bones of Henry's story. How, frustrated by his marriage to first wife Catherine of Aragon and her failure to provide a male heir, he turned his lusty attentions to Anne Boleyn - a move which led to his dramatic break from the Catholic Church. But Wolf Hall goes behind the scenes of these well-worn "history textbook" events, showing how cunning, wily players like Thomas Cromwell and Cardinal Wolsey played their parts in the shadowy corridors of power. Think House of Cards in the Tudor era, and a whole new take on history that makes it all live and breathe again.


Aside from the awesome Mark Rylance as the cunning Cromwell, Wolf Hall has a suitably regal list of big-name stars in attendance. Damian Lewis makes for a dangerously charming Henry VIII, flitting from affable to ruthless with the snap of a finger. One minute he's the very picture of a gallant medieval monarch, the next he's a chilling premonition of the likes of Joseph Stalin.

Look out as well for Jonathan Pryce as Henry's one-time fixer, Cardinal Wolsey, and Spider-Man star Tom Holland as Cromwell's son, Gregory. But the person who really steals every scene she's in? Claire Foy. She's now most famous playing a very different monarch, Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown, but in Wolf Hall she gives us a fantastically sly and self-centred Anne Boleyn, a woman fully aware of how to play the Tudor game as a member of her gender, "selling herself by the inch" in the words of another character. It's an unforgettable portrayal of a woman whose legend is almost as big as her husband's.