The man behind Wolf Hall

The man behind Wolf Hall

By Steve Clarke,
Wednesday, 11th February 2015
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The last time director Peter Kosminsky made a period drama, it flopped. So why did he take on Wolf Hall? Steve Clarke finds out

Period drama and Peter Kosminsky are odd bed fellows. The director is celebrated for edgy, politically charged, investigative, contemporary pieces. Remember the story of Iraqi-weapons expert Dr David Kelly, The Government Inspector, or Britz, Kosminsky’s response to the 7/7 bombings, with its two contrasting depictions of young British Muslims.

Peter Kosminsky, right, on location for Wolf Hall
Peter Kosminsky, right, on location for Wolf Hall

As we all know by now, Kosminsky is the director of
Wolf Hall
, the BBC’s six-part adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s two Booker prize-winning historical novels,
Wolf Hall
Bring up the Bodies

“This is not my natural milieu. I had one previous venture in costume drama (a feature film of Wuthering Heights) and it was borderline disaster,” he says. “So I’ve been very nervous about this field, and went into Wolf Hall with great trepidation…

“In the end, without wishing to sound too cute, what’s important is what the audience thinks.”

This is only part of the story. As Kosminsky, an obsessive, precise man capable of enormous charm, knows well, the chattering classes’ verdict on Wolf Hall is all too relevant as charter renewal looms.

Not surprisingly, he is a committed supporter of the BBC’s place in our cultural life, and alarmed at the precarious state the institution finds itself in. “At the moment, the BBC feels like a slightly friendless organisation,” he observes with understatement.

We meet five days before the first episode of Wolf Hall is broadcast. He is hot from the Soho edit suite where the finishing touches have been put to episode 5.

After our interview, he flies to the US with Mark Rylance (Thomas Cromwell) and Damian Lewis (Henry VIII) for a promotional burst arranged by the BBC’s co-producer Masterpiece Theatre. Wolf Hall airs there in April.

Here, the hype swirling around the show’s launch is verging on the embarrassing. There have been constant trails on BBC TV and radio, alongside saturation coverage in newspapers and their colour supplements. The obligatory Radio Times cover story hailed Wolf Hall as “2015’s biggest drama”.

Read more television magazineEven The Daily Mail is onside. The day we met, the normally BBC-bashing tabloid devoted its centre-page spread to the joys of Wolf Hall under the heading, “Greatest period drama ever made”. No pressure, then.

The irony can’t be lost on Kosminsky, once nick-named “Trotsky” by his BBC colleagues for his leftward-leaning views; today, he describes himself as an old-fashioned Labour voter who supports wealth redistribution.

“The hype terrifies me… I wrote to one of my colleagues the other day and said, ‘Stand by for the backlash.’”

Even so, the director knew how important it was to win the approval of Mantel for the film version of her novels.

Her spell-binding story of brutal dysfunction at the Henrician court has already been given a highly praised stage workout by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Kosminsky deliberately avoided seeing the RSC’s productions of the novels until the BBC’s version of Wolf Hall had wrapped: “I was concerned that something might lodge and I might nick it. I didn’t want to risk plagiarising the production.

“The stage version was entertaining, fast moving and it had lovely performances. The television version is slower, more thoughtful, more interior and darker.”

Will it be too slow to hold the audience through all six parts? “I am glad it is on BBC Two. When we first started submitting the rushes there was a discussion, at a fairly high level within the BBC, about whether the show should move to BBC One.

Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall
Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall

“I argued with the producers that this would be a mistake. It wouldn’t meet the slot average and therefore the BBC would be put on the defensive…

“Transmitting it on BBC One would open it to illegitimate criticism because it is aimed at a thoughtful audience and one prepared to give things a bit more time.”

He adds: “This is quite serious, intellectual stuff. Hilary has said that this is not escapism. She is right.”

Kosminsky is one of television drama’s most celebrated directors. After The Government Inspector and The Promise, his 2011 film about Britain’s relationship to Palestine, he is enjoying a growing reputation as a writer, too. The RTS and Bafta awards are numerous.

Meeting Mantel for the first time made him anxious. “I was very nervous,” Kosminsky recalls of the encounter. He had read the two Tudor novels and Mantel’s memoir, Giving up the Ghost, but admits he did not know her work inside out.

They got on well. She told him her five years of research for Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies was available for him to use as he saw fit.

“I went into her house nervous and came out super-charged and ready to go,” says Kosminsky.

Despite the success of this initial conversation, some apprehension over the idea of directing a costume drama based on her books remained. And he took a memento from the visit to her coastal Dorset home as a lucky charm. “I picked up a pebble from the beach which I kept with me throughout the shoot. I kept it as a lucky talisman on my desk at home.”

Kosminsky, who is 58, lives in rural Wiltshire, where he keeps a massive film library comprising “thousands of DVDs”. “I don’t watch a lot of television drama. My influences are movie influences,” he says, citing Roland Joffé, Les Blair and Ken Loach as directors who have helped to inform his own style.

The new “golden age of TV drama”, defined by the likes of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Killing, True Detective and Game of Thrones are a closed book to Kosminsky.

“I’ve never seen a single episode of any of them… It is not a conscious decision to boycott television drama. There’s some wonderful work being done… I watched The Honourable Woman because the subject matter interests me and I admire Hugo Blick’s work...

“Most of the things I write are based on research. I work very long hours. I don’t watch a lot of stuff. The free time I get, I prefer to watch movies.”

Kosminsky’s parents were blue-collar East Enders: his father was a machinist in the rag trade, paid as a piece worker, his mother was a secretary.

Going to Oxford (where he read chemistry) and being accepted for a BBC general traineeship were big steps. So when, in 1980, following three months working in the Plays Department as a trainee, he was fired, Kosminsky was utterly devastated.

The reason for his sacking remains mysterious. “I never really knew but, basically, gross incompetence,” he remembers. “In fairness, I wasn’t very good at it. I joke about it now, but I almost had a nervous breakdown.”

Peter Kosminsky
Peter Kosminsky

Kosminsky came close to taking a job selling communications satellites for British Aerospace. But chance led him to work on BBC One flagship show
, following the intervention of the then-Controller of BBC Two, Brian Wenham.

Part of Kosminsky’s training at Television Centre had involved working for Wenham on planning BBC Two schedules. When Wenham discovered Kosminsky had been let go by Plays, he summoned the aspiring film-maker to his office.

“Brian was very peremptory. He said: ‘What’s all this about you being fired? We spent almost £20,000 training you.’

“He picked up his phone. ‘Get me Roger Bolton [then Nationwide Editor]… I’ve got one of your general trainees here. He’s completely fucked up. I want you to take him on for six months.

“‘It won’t cost you anything. If he’s any good, you can keep him; if not, get rid of him when his contract expires.’”

After a tricky start (he completely lacked journalistic experience), Bolton steered him towards making short, human-interest films for Nationwide. He didn’t know it at the time, but Kosminsky had found something he loved doing.

He credits Bolton with saving his career. “Roger made me a film director and I found my niche.”

It was as a documentary-maker, as part of John Willis’s First Tuesday team at Yorkshire Television, where Kosminsky’s exacting and often challenging work first won acclaim. This in turn led to Shoot To Kill, his incendiary TV drama directorial debut.

A high watermark of the British television drama documentary, the four-hour ITV programme examined the killing, by members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, of six terrorist suspects. It won the RTS award for Single Drama and a Bafta nomination. Shoot To Kill was banned in Northern Ireland.

Subsequent Kosminsky films have embraced such equally hard-edged subject matter as child abuse – No Child of Mine (winner of a Best Single Drama Bafta) – and British attempts at peacekeeping in Bosnia. Warriors won him another Single Drama award from the RTS, a Bafta for Best Drama Serial and the Prix Italia Fiction prize.

The first film he wrote, in addition to directing it, was The Government Inspector. Mark Rylance played biological weapons inspector Dr David Kelly, who apparently committed suicide after being identified as the source of leaks concerning Saddam Hussein’s lack of weapons of mass destruction.

The Channel 4 production won Baftas for Best Single Drama, Best Actor and Best Writer. Crucially, The Government Inspector enabled Kosminsky to form a good working relationship with Rylance.

The actor’s mesmerising depiction of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall is certain to lead to another trunkful of silverware. Understandably, Kosminsky is gushing and diplomatic when the subject is Rylance.

Can actors have large egos? “I am not even going to comment on that one,” is Kosminsky’s instant retort. “He is a complicated man, as you would expect, given his brilliance. I am glad that I have come to direct him later in my career… Directing is a performance just like acting…

“The tricky part of it is that you may be doing a scene with three actors and the performance required for each actor may be subtly, or not so subtly, different…

“You give him what he needs and you don’t encumber him with things that he doesn’t need for the sake of appearing to direct. This is something probably harder to achieve with less experience.”

Kosminsky adds: “With Wolf Hall, it was important to create a strong sense of the interior world. Better than any actor I know, Mark generates a sense of the interior world…

“I wanted to shoot it in what I call a point-of-view and reaction style. You see events from Cromwell’s point of view.

“That can very literally be the camera sitting on his shoulder, following him into a room and then coming back on to his face for a reaction. And, all the time, making his shots that little bit tighter than the point-of-view shots of others.”

Previewers and critics have remarked upon the singular colour palette of Wolf Hall, an effect gained partly by the prodigious use of what are believed to be authentic Tudor tallow candles.

More than £20,000 was blown on candles. Paradoxically, it was the development of the latest camera technology that permitted scenes to be shot with no illumination other than candle- and firelight.

“With the Arri Alexa camera, for the first time on television, it has become possible to shoot exclusively by candlelight,” enthuses Kosminsky. “Some scenes were shot with just one candle.”

Wolf Hall is costume drama, but, in common with all of Kosminsky’s best work, the serial embraces a deeply political story – and one that carries contemporary resonances.

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall

The resemblance between some of the religious and cultural mores in early-modern English society and those that influence today’s Islamic extremists are easy to detect.

Kosminsky suggests that “Christianity is at about the same level of development during Henry VIII’s reign as [some interpretations of Islam now]. We look at Isis beheading people and displaying their severed heads. That is, of course, what was happening during Cromwell’s era.

“It was completely unacceptable in Cromwell’s time for a woman to appear with her head uncovered (or, come to that, a man), as is the case in [many Islamic countries today].

“I am not saying the parallels are exact. But the brutality and viciousness of the killing – hanging, drawing and quartering (disembowelling while still alive) – for minor religious transgressions is similar to how Isis puts fellow Muslims to death because they don’t accept the same interpretation of the Qur’an.”

Under the terms of his output deal with Channel 4, Kosminsky is developing an Isis drama. Another project, some 25 years in gestation, is a BBC Films adaptation of Children of the Siege, Pauline Cutting’s story of how she worked as a trauma surgeon during a siege of a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut.

These both put Kosminsky back in his comfort zone. Would he consider doing more period drama? “Oh yeah,” he says, without a moment’s hesitation. “I’m hoping that, as a result of Wolf Hall, others things will be offered to me that I don’t have to develop myself.

“There would probably have to be a political element in it to feel that I had something to contribute.”

Some directors thrive on their reputations as control freaks. Kosminsky appears to believe in a more collegiate approach to film-making.

“I don’t believe in all this auteur crap. Television is a collaborative medium,” he emphasises. “When I first started in this business, as a BBC general trainee in 1980, I went on a training course at what used to be called Woodstock Grove.

“I was told that you are surrounded by all this experience: use it. If you tell a camera operator or a designer what to do because you’re the director, they’ll do it and you may be rather disappointed by the result.

“But if you tell them what you want to achieve, they’ll help you achieve it, and you may be a lot happier with the result. I have lived and worked by that maxim for 35 years.”