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Ol’ Red Eyes is back: Wolf Hall

Jon Bounds looks at TV — the new opiate of the masses — from a Marxist perspective. This month the BBC's big-budget adaptation of Hilary Mantel's widescreen historical novels.

When Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell glances emotionless into the eyes of a lady or a king, as he talks without emotion, as he pulls one of his fabulous extreme acting moves — the distracted pick at an unseen speck — you know one thing about the character he’s playing. That he probably has a dog. Because I’ve sat, emotionless, listening to motions at tables in party meetings for years: and noticed that I had dog hairs on my jumper.

The other things we learn about the 15th century fixer to Henry VIII are sometimes less subtle. For all of Wolf Hall’s post-broadcast-TV-as-cultural-hegemony shaky-hand cameras and naturalistic lighting, for all its Netflix and HBO grown-upedness, it sometimes ends up labouring the point. And the point is often the difference between the value of labour and the value of the on-screen world’s own cultural hegemony. The young Cromwell is shown with his blacksmith father, the other characters periodically remind him of his low birth: we, the director has concluded can peer through the candlelit murk to un-introduced protagonists, can grasp — or at least be trusted to not care — about historical politics, but we can’t infer that there might be some class tension in the court of the King.

But thus far at least, the class struggle has been nothing but a sideshow, the Privy Councillor certainly doesn’t trouble himself with programmatic demands.

It’s Cromwell’s role as fixer that is the heart of the drama — the axis of praxis for the Tudor court — and it can’t help put one in mind of the newLabour days of Blair and Campbell. For gossip in the 15th century was the press, and it was Cromwell’s skills in controlling the lines of communication that lead Henry to get away with reforming the church and state to his own ends. It’s tempting to see the dissolution of monasteries as Henry and Cromwell’s Clause VI moment: in that it created all sorts of light and heat (especially for the burning heretics) but did nothing but redistribute wealth between parts of the elite. To see rival Sir Thomas More as an old school utopian socialist is perhaps missing the irony in his Utopia, but to see Cromwell as an enabling spin doctor for a blossoming tyrant isn’t so hard.

The form of alienation that exists between the books and the TV adaptation — that this version will soon take precedence, over the text but soon over the history itself — proves problematic. The master–slave dialectic between the fictions and the fact cannot be realised with only one protagonist being self conscious — which itself can be seen as a parallel to the social developments we’re viewing.

We don’t see a class struggle because only one class at this point in history can have any concept of it. The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles, but only it seems if we can turn the cameras on it.

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Photos CC by: Nathan Wind & Stephan

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