Monday 20 November 2017

Interior of a man's soul vs interior decor

Television Review

They had much to be worried during the Tudor period. Illustration by Jim Cogan.
They had much to be worried during the Tudor period. Illustration by Jim Cogan.
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

Wolf Hall (BBC2). Midsomer Murders (ITV). British Open (Sky Sports). As we have seen in Wolf Hall, they had much to be worried during the Tudor period.

They seemed to be very cold most of the time, they succumbed to various fevers and maladies and poxes which would not trouble us today, there were spies everywhere, and even the mightiest of men and women could find themselves in the Tower.

But one thing they didn't have to worry about, was "the ratings". As we keep hearing that Midsomer Murders, even without John Nettles, is getting more viewers than Wolf Hall, we reflect on the reign of Henry VIII, a man who was devoted to the arts and to music in particular. A man who understood that you'd never accomplish much in that domain or indeed in any other domain if you were constantly wondering how it might be going down with the focus groups.

Thomas Cromwell was Henry's focus group, and Cromwell too was famous for making up his own mind about things, and indeed for making up the minds of others.

The BBC used to be a bit like that, and Wolf Hall seems like a glorious experiment aimed at recovering some of that old authority. With its slow, stately rhythm it asserts its own values, resisting the temptations to pander, to dumb down.

I think it will eventually be seen as a great triumph, that over time it will be viewed by multitudes who will marvel in particular at a drama with such stillness at its centre, in the person of Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell.

There is a race memory of The Six Wives of Henry VIII, to which this may be a homage, an echo of that ancient BBC history, but the Six Wives was probably a more traditional drama.

Certainly it would have been much louder, and more bawdy, and more given to banqueting tables groaning with haunches of venison and all that.

By making Cromwell the main man, rather than Henry, Wolf Hall puts us inside the head of a brilliant individual, and due to the apparently effortless genius of Rylance, we always feel that we are in the right place.

This is a journey through the interior of a man's soul, whereas Midsomer Murders, enjoyable though it may be, is more a journey through the interior decor of various desirable properties in the West Country. And if Midsomer is doing a bit better in the ratings, the BBC may look to another jewel in its glorious heritage and recall that the first series of Fawlty Towers didn't exactly go gangbusters either.

* * * * *

Then again the BBC has squandered much of that heritage, as we saw recently with the amazing decision to let the British Open go to Sky Sports.

If they are celebrating the tradition of the historical drama with Wolf Hall, they are giving up the tradition of having a golf tournament on live television for about ten hours a day - arguably this was an even greater tradition, because it was utterly unique.

The idea of a whole day of sport uninterrupted by ads has become so strange, you could nominate the BBC's coverage of the British Open as the last wonder of the television world. It was the Great Pyramid, on which all would gaze in awe.

When in future they ask what this thing called the BBC was all about, they will be referred to this phenomenon, a major golf tournament lasting for four days which would be shown from about nine in the morning to seven in the evening, with no advertising. And they will not believe that such a thing was possible.

Unfortunately, the BBC no longer thinks that it is possible either. Perhaps they let it go because they just don't understand these things any more, they can't see the symbolism of it. Or maybe it was for ideological reasons, the fact that golf is perceived as an activity for middle-aged white men with unsavoury attitudes, and the BBC now believes it should have nothing to do with such people.

I wasn't even aware they were allowed to let it go, because like many others, I was under the impression that the Open was the TV equivalent of a listed building.

Seems that it was only partially listed, and now it is being carted away to Murdoch's kingdom in Osterley, brick by brick.

Sunday Independent

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