How the BBC kept the Wolf from the door

Damian Lewis plays Henry VIII in the new BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Booke Prize-winning Wolf Hall

Damian Lewis plays Henry VIII in the new BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Booke Prize-winning Wolf Hall

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Scheming, intrigue and ill-fated romance – the TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall looks set to have viewers on the edge of their seats. The cast talk codpieces and corsets with Jeananne Craig

From sword-fighting lessons to wince-inducing corsets, every effort was made to ensure BBC Two’s upcoming Tudor epic Wolf Hall was as authentic as possible.

But actor Mark Rylance had one issue on the set of the six-part drama, adapted from Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies.

“The codpieces are too small,” says the star, 54, who plays Henry VIII’s closest advisor Thomas Cromwell. “I think it was a directive from our American producers, PBS – they like small codpieces which always seemed to be tucked away.”

The Kent-born actor clarifies that he “wasn’t personally disappointed” by the accessory, worn in Tudor times at the front of men’s breeches and seen as a symbol of virility.

“I’m a bit more used to them than other people, from being at Globe [Shakespeare’s Globe; the theatre at which Rylance spent a decade as artistic director]. But I can see for modern audiences, perhaps even more in America, they may not know exactly what’s going on down there...”

For the record, the show’s producers insist there was no “hidden codpiece memo” from either themselves or their US counterparts. But they weren’t the only tricky items the show’s cast had to contend with.

“In the first few weeks, the dresses were magical and amazing,” says Upstairs Downstairs actress Claire Foy, who plays Anne Boleyn, eventual wife of Henry, played by Homeland’s Damian Lewis.

“But then it gets to July and you’re in a stately home, not able to drink water, sit down, not really able to breathe, and you’re regretting asking for the corset to be so tight in the fitting,” adds the 30-year-old.

Filming took place across the south-west of England, with the action following Cromwell’s meteoric rise from blacksmith’s son to the king’s right-hand-man.

Along the way, he must deal with the ruthless power struggles of the Tudor court, the upheavals of the Protestant reformation, the King’s turbulent relationship with Boleyn, and her later execution.

Viewers who conjure up an image of Henry VIII as a rotund, tyrannical ruler might be surprised by the slim and handsome version we meet in Wolf Hall.

“I think we all have this understanding that he was this womanising, syphilitic, bloated, genocidal Elvis character,” says Lewis.

“But he had a 32-inch waist and he remained that way for quite a long time. He was the pre-eminent sportsman in his court. He was much taller than anyone else. His beautiful, pale complexion was often remarked upon.

“And so, what I’ve found in Henry, is that the grandiose, more paranoid, self-indulgent, self-pitying, cruel Henry emerged in the period after this series, actually.”

Author Mantel is delighted with the end result – and pleased that accuracy remained a priority.

“Good drama doesn’t have to mean bad history,” she says. “History is never a convenient shape, it’s true, but if you have the craft and the will to do it, you can find a way to tell a good story without distortion, and find the dramatic shape in real events.”

Wolf Hall

Wednesday, BBC2, 9pm