REVIEW - MARLBOROUGH LITFEST: Peter Kosminsky tells how Wolf Hall came to our television screens - by candle light

Written by Tony Millett.

Peter Kosminsky & Jon Snow (Photo courtesy Ben Phillips Photography Ltd)Peter Kosminsky & Jon Snow (Photo courtesy Ben Phillips Photography Ltd)Peter Kosminsky is the television director director who brought the first two parts of Hilary Mantel's trilogy about Thomas Cromwell to television - and six million BBC viewers.  On the Sunday afternoon of the 2015 Marlborough LitFest, Kosminsky was grilled - in the gentlest possible way - by Channel 4 News' Jon Snow.

Wolf Hall the building - Jane Seymour's home before she became Queen - has vanished.  Leaving a sad hole on Marlborough's tourist map.  But it was obvious from the full house at the Town Hall, that 'Wolf Hall' - the novels (Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies), the Royal Shakespeare Company plays and the television drama - still has a firm hold on many people.  

Snow's interview revealed a great deal about the directorial process and the production itself.  Mark Rylance - described by Kosminsky as one of the world's best actors - was chosen to play Cromwell, and he chose Kosminsky as director: "A hell of an honour."

Kosminsky said he had "Searched for Tudor England in Belgium - and could not find it."  He was saved from the familiar low-cost Eastern Europe locations with Dracula castles standing in for Hampton Court and Wolf Hall, by a change in government policy: "Just when we were cranking up the production the new tax breaks came in and we could bring the show home."

To get an authentic feel to the films, Kosminsky and his Director of Photography experimented shooting by candlelight - just one candle.  The technology worked: "Unfortunately some people thought it was invisible as a result!"

Full house for Kosminsky & Snow (Photo courtesy Ben Phillips Photography Ltd)Full house for Kosminsky & Snow (Photo courtesy Ben Phillips Photography Ltd)But the insurers and risk managers insisted on someone being hidden from the camera in case things caught alight and having a man with a measuring stick checking the candle was never too close to anything flammable - he tried the patience somewhat.

Kosminsky told the audience that his aim had been to portray Cromwell's thoughts without using explanatory voice-over.  Mark Rylance's performance achieved this - with the director emphasising 'the space between the words': "Cromwell was powerful but terrified - he was so easy to get rid of.  We had to show how thin the ice is on which he's skating."

Kosmisnsky also emphasised work done in the edit suite - what used to be 'the cutting room' and have a 'floor'.  The series was six hours long on the BBC: "We shot a lot more than that - a lot more."

Later he was asked from the audience whether he might produce a longer cut - 'Wolf Hall the director's cut'?  After some thought, Kosminsky said: "'No' is the answer - I watched the assembly [of all the final takes] and was glad I was going to be able to take quite a bit out.  I think what we produced is better and editing is, I find, an intensely creative process."  

But there is a downside too: "One of the hardest things I have to do is to write to actors and tell them their parts have been cut or decimated."

Wolf Hall is intensely political and was very expensive to make.  There followed some gloomy to and fro about the future of such productions.  Kosminsky had worked in the old, regionally based ITV which had made brilliant programmes like Brideshead Revisted: "ITV was destroyed - it's now a vehicle to make money for its shareholders.  It was destroyed quite wilfully."

"It looks like the sights are set on Channel 4 and the BBC.  That's a slightly terrifying thought for all of us who care.  The government does not own the BBC - we do - you do."

Snow asked Kosminsky what his ambition was: "To make a bit of mischief. It's felt to me for sometime that people are quite passive - politically."  He recognised that people could be pushed too far: "The British public are slow to anger - unlike the French. But once you've pissed them off - stand back!...Maybe I'm being over optimistic."

Snow asked, slightly tentatively, whether Mantel had liked the BBC Wolf Hall films. He described sitting in the viewing theatre with her watching two episodes ending with Wolsey's death - she was so moved she could not speak and just raised an arm with a thumbs up: "You're talking about one of the best moments of my life."

Hilary Mantel is still writing the third volume of her decidedly revisionist history of Cromwell: The Mirror and the Light. The audience hummed with pleasure at the thought of Peter Kosminsky turning that into another television masterpiece.  

But it will be matter of all the team - writer, actors, technicians and the director too - being available at the right time: "We will find a way to bring us all back together."  "Perhaps in five years?"  "I hope it will be in two years."

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