Sure, “Downton Abbey” is easy to love with its romance, high fashion and Ye Olde McMansion. But, PBS’ “Wolf Hall” boasts its own seductive strength, courtesy of a 16th-century powerbroker who would be at ease in “House of Cards” and the dashing English king he serves.
Drawn from Hilary Mantel’s pair of award-winning historical novels that follow Thomas Cromwell as he maneuvers his way through the court of King Henry VIII, “Wolf Hall” stars acclaimed British stage actor Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damian Lewis (“Homeland”) as Henry.
The six-part drama which debuted Sunday, April 5, costars Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, and is a worthy “Masterpiece” sibling to “Downton Abbey” and the series’ canon, said Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of the long-running series.
Recent word that ratings sensation “Downton” will conclude next year magnifies the importance of “Wolf Hall” and other successors. The 20th century “Upstairs, Downstairs” saga drew new viewers to “Masterpiece” but also may have created expectations of a never-ending stream of similar fare.
How will viewers respond? While Eaton acknowledges that “Wolf Hall” is more somber in tone and look than eye-candy “Downton,” she contends that’s not necessarily a drawback.
“Masterpiece” is an anthology series “and that is part of the beauty of what we do,” she said. “You could also argue there is an audience that will come to it because it isn’t ‘Downton Abbey’: the Hilary Mantel people or the Netflix ‘House of Cards’ people who want something with more grit, something darker.”
Colin Callender, executive producer of “Wolf Hall,” which garnered a big audience for Britain’s BBC2, agreed with the assessment. He compares Cromwell — who shared family ties with 17th century British political and military leader Oliver Cromwell — to recent popular TV antiheroes.
“In a world post-’Sopranos’ and post-’Breaking Bad’ and Walter White and ‘House of Cards’ and Frank Underwood, I think the audience embraces and is intrigued by characters that straddle a moral line,” Callender said.
He credits screenwriter Peter Straughan for effectively distilling the novels’ combined thousand pages into a focused “revenge story” in which Cromwell attempts to destroy the men who toppled his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce). Peter Kosminsky was the director.
“At one point Cromwell says, ‘I need guilty men. They may not be guilty of the things charged, but they’re guilty nonetheless,’” Callender says, reciting the lines with gusto.
“Homeland” fans may be drawn in by the prospect of seeing Lewis’ energetic and mercurial Henry, one far removed from the traditional image of a stolid, bulky ruler as depicted in Hans Holbein’s portrait.
Lewis hesitated in taking the part that he himself describes as a supporting role, with Henry seen only when he interacts with Cromwell.
“I’m not going to lie to you. I tussled with my vanity, briefly. I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to play Henry VIII, I want to be the guy,’” Lewis said. But the script and its depiction of a many-faceted Henry changed his mind.
“Because he’s not there all the time, every time he arrives in this piece you get a little portrait of him. … You might see him being affectionate to his baby girl or throwing a kingly fit of volcanic proportions or composing a song on his lute or doing archery on his horse,” Lewis said.
But it is Cromwell who dominates the story. The character, traditionally portrayed by history as “a two-dimensional villain lurking in the wings,” required a masterful actor, Callender said.
That unquestionably is Rylance, a three-time Tony Award winner who’s decided to take on more screen work. That includes “The Gunman” with Sean Penn, and Steven Spielberg’s in-production movie “The BFG,” in which Rylance plays a kindly giant with that moniker.
As Cromwell, his face is a study in caution and wariness, his body language protectively neutral. The actor said that playing Cromwell gave him a chance to work in the Spencer Tracy mode, one he described as requiring he be “more present, more contained, less effortful.”
He was inspired by the veteran oarsmen he saw at work during a Colorado River trip he took last fall, using the fewest number of strokes to make steady progress.
“A little pull here, a little pull there. Then the current takes his boat that way. They never tip over or flail. They just use the nature of what’s there,” said the engagingly low-key, soft-spoken actor.
The 55-year-old Rylance translated their approach to his world.
“Use what the other actors are giving you. Don’t be tempted by this pressure (that) you have to do it all yourself,” he said. “Just be present and full of curiosity.”