Friday, 27 February 2015

Wolf Hall, office politics and a new world order

David Timoney's assessment of the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall is spot-on in places:
Portraits of Thomas Cromwell show a bruiser in the mould of Ed Balls. Though leaner, Ben Miles was closer to this, with a loose-limbed gait and accent that suggested both the commoner and the soldier. In contrast, Mark Rylance was too feline, though the screenplay made the most of this in scenes where he quietly watches events, sometimes concealed or paused on the threshold, acting furiously with just his eyes. The moments when he threatened violence were unconvincing.
I'm also on board with his thoughts about the lack of a bigger picture:
The sense of profound historical change, such as the social ramifications of the dissolution of the monasteries or the economic and geopolitical pivot from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, is entirely absent from the confined world of the court. History is reduced to the conservative notion of inter-generational debt: Cromwell's filial-like loyalty to Wolsey and his paternal concern for Gregory are contrasted favourably with the dynastic instrumentalism of the aristocracy.
There were plenty of of things going on during the transition from late medieval to early modern period that were a lot more novel, exciting and interesting than yet more iterations of the centuries-old story of royal reproduction, dynastic bickering and jostling for favour at court.

Our view of the Iberian Peninsular and the Ottoman Empire is coloured by our national story, in which the rise of English and British power around the globe is routinely contrasted with the decline and fall of old, enfeebled empires in these parts of the world. But in the 16th Century, the newly unified Spain was a rising power and the Iberian Peninsula was at the heart of an unprecedented wave of systematic exploration, discovery, trade, colonisation and (often ruthless) exploitation of hitherto unknown lands. At the end of the previous century, a mere two years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue, in a document of breathtaking ambition (and arrogance), the monarchs of Spain and Portugal agreed to carve up the entire non-Christian world between themselves.

As for the Ottomans, this wave of expansion in the west was, at least in part, driven by Ottoman success in the east. The completion of the Reconquista, along with the mariner's astrolabe, the carrack, the caravel and the nau gave the Iberians the some of the means and opportunity to complete voyages of discovery. Much of the motive had come from Ottoman domination of trade routes to the east, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and the search for alternative routes to the Indes. The Ottoman Empire itself wouldn't reach its greatest extent until the 1680s, so we need to lose our hindsight view, coloured by a much later history of decline and the "sick man of Europe" jibe. Like all political careers, all Empires and other power structures end in failure, but, given the brief span of human lives, any that manage to endure for more than a couple of centuries or so must be counted as successful in their own terms.

Then there's a marriage far happier and more fruitful than any of Henry VIII 's dynastic couplings; movable type printing wedded to an alphabetic script. Timoney's right to warn against the ahistorical conflation of this development with the much later appearance of widespread literacy at all levels of society, but it's still a biggie - vernacular Bibles and prayer books, grammars, books of mathematics, philosophy, statecraft and what we'd now call science, all circulating among the educated classes. And, more to the point, printed accounts of newly-explored lands to tempt merchants and would-be adventurers.

"Arabic" numerals were known in the Europe in previous centuries, but their use was spreading by this time - there is evidence of them becoming more widespread even in England from their appearance on 15th century monuments.

By this stage, cannons and portable firearms which had started off in China had made their way to Europe, via the Muslim world, and would eventually displace those medieval icons, the castle and the armoured knight. 

Of course, for most ordinary people busy working the land, or being servants, it was the same old same old, but the well-off and the movers and shakers were no longer living in Ecclesiastes World where 'The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.'

In contrast, the repetitive squabbles over dynastic politics, currying favour with the power brokers and succession crises which feature so largely in Wolf Hall could have been set in almost any any Medieval court (in reality or fantasy).

This sort of highly personal jockeying for power is really just office politics writ large, and this depressingly timeless familiarity may account for a lot of Wolf Hall's appeal. You'd have hoped that the despotic power relations of 16th Century would be unrecognisable to somebody in a modern workplace in a democratic, liberal society, but Nick Cohen's line 'Every time you go into your workplace, you leave a democracy and enter a dictatorship', often seems pretty darn close to the truth. At least the boss can only cut off your income, not your head.

I guess if you are (depending on your point of view) lucky, or unlucky enough to work in the executive suite of one of the big banks, things must be even more like a historical palace drama, with the heads of unfortunate underlings and whistle-blowers (figuratively) rolling, while the rapacious kingmakers and courtiers get on with the serious business of conspicuous competitive consumption, back-stabbing, deceit and looting.

But where would you start, if you wanted to make a BBC-friendly historical drama that focused on the profound, interesting and new things that were happening in the 16th century world? Maybe the big picture stuff would be best left to a documentary, but if I had to pitch an idea for a historical drama that focused on the unique and exciting changes that separated the medieval from the modern, I'd leave the court of Henry VIII and move forward to the mid to late 16th century. By then, England, like Iberia, was to ready explore strange new lands, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no one had gone before (no one, that is, except for the peoples who'd been living in the strange new lands for the last sixteen thousand-odd years but who, as heathens, obviously didn't count).

For a BBC costume a drama combining a well-known period and least one historical character with wide name-recognition, focused on everything that was new and exciting in the early modern period, I'd go to the court of Queen Elizabeth in the age of discovery. Main characters? That well-known swashbuckler Francis Drake and the extraordinary polymath John Dee, rumoured to be the 'intellectual force' behind Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe.*

Dee studied 'geography, astronomy, astrology, optics, navigation, nautical engineering, scripture, mathematics, law, medicine, cryptography', tried to communicate with angels, (leading, bizarrely,. to a spot of wife-swapping with his research assistant), was the 007 before Sean Connery and, as a cheerleader for imperialism, was awarded the rights to 'all newly discovered land north of the 50th Parallel, which would have given him Canada—had Drake gone any further north than Oregon.'

Forget fascinating stillness and  meaningful looks, this could be full-on, over-the-top, borderline insane Ken Russell territory. Naysayers might call it too nerdcore for prime time, but I'd call it an unbridled romp through a larger-than-life age with bit parts for Walter Raleigh, Queen Bess, that well-known patron of the dark arts and part-Time Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II and Will Shakespeare, for extra brand recognition. Pass the popcorn.

*Not having read Jason Louv's book (yet), I've no idea how convincing this claim is, but it would make for a great story.