Hall of fame

Hall of fame

By Michael Pickard
February 23, 2024

In production

Almost 10 years after BBC historical drama Wolf Hall first aired, its long-anticipated sequel is in production. Playground Entertainment executive producer Colin Callender explains why Wolf Hall: The Mirror & The Light will be worth the wait.

When BBC historical drama Wolf Hall first aired in 2015, it was met by critical acclaim and awards glory, picking up Bafta and Golden Globe awards for best drama.

Based on the Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bringing Up The Bodies, it charts the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of King Henry VIII, ending with the death of the monarch’s second wife, Anne Boleyn.

Mark Rylance (pictured above), who also won a Bafta for best actor, starred as Cromwell alongside Damian Lewis as Henry, in a production written by Peter Straughan and directed by Peter Kosminsky.

Now, 10 years after the series was first made, the team have reunited for a long-awaited sequel. Based on the third book in Mantel’s trilogy, The Mirror & The Light, the story will pick up in May 1536, as Cromwell continues his climb to power and wealth while Henry settles for short-term happiness with his third queen, Jane Seymour.

Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. All of England lies at his feet, ripe for innovation and religious reform. But as fortune’s wheel turns, Cromwell’s enemies are gathering in the shadows.

Colin Callender

Titled Wolf Hall: The Mirror & The Light, the six-part series is backed by the BBC in the UK and Masterpiece in the US, and will once again be produced by Playground and Company Pictures. Banijay is handling international distribution.

Kosminsky (The Undeclared War) returns to direct scripts from Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), while Rylance and Lewis also reprise their roles alongside Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Wolsey. Kate Phillips is also back as Jane Seymour and Lilit Lesser as Princess Mary, the daughter of Henry and his first wife Catherine of Aragon.

Filming began in November and will continue until March, with the series expected to air in 2025, a full decade after its predecessor. The delay, it’s fair to say, is partly down to the success of the original Wolf Hall.

“It’s been a challenge because, over the years, it’s been a combination of getting the scripts written and then all the actors have had big careers doing other movies or TV series or whatever,” Playground CEO and executive producer Colin Callender tells DQ. “So it’s been complicated to actually bring everyone back together. But we seem to have found a moment when we could make it work.”

The Covid lockdowns also delayed proceedings. “So it’s taken a while, but the series is a contemporary period drama that really sheds a light on the politics of power and the price the people pay when they wield that power. In some sense, the story is as contemporary as ever. It’s a story of loyalty and betrayal. It just happens to have taken place 500 years ago.”

Callender says Wolf Hall is a perfect example of the sort of show Playground wants to make, one that speaks to a contemporary audience in a television landscape post Mad Men, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, which all have a morally complex central character.

“Audiences increasingly now want to see characters who are multi-layered and complex. Tony Soprano in The Sopranos, [House of Cards’] Frank Underwood, Walter White [in Breaking Bad] and Thomas Cromwell are just that sort of character,” adds Callender, who says Kosminsky’s directorial approach to Mantel’s material has been key to Wolf Hall’s success.

Damian Lewis (left) as King Henry VIII alongside Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the first season of Wolf Hall

“Hilary’s book was told entirely from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view, and Peter, having a documentary background, also films the story entirely from his point of view, so the camera follows Cromwell into rooms and into a world, and we, the audience, only discover things when Thomas Cromwell himself discovers things,” he explains. “In many ways, we are entering this world with Thomas Cromwell and so we have a very intimate association and connection with the story.”

Wolf Hall: The Mirror & The Light promises to be even more moving and emotionally powerful than the first season, as Cromwell knows he is probably doomed – but hasn’t yet accepted his fate.

“He’s beginning to explore and re-examine his life. Certain characters come into his life that didn’t before and he goes on an emotional journey that is very different from what we saw in the first season,” Callender says. “So as successful as the first season was, I think this will have a very added quality to it that will really draw in the audience.”

Notably, Wolf Hall adapted two books across six episodes, while the sequel will draw from just one book across the same number of episodes, creating more time and space to delve deeper into Cromwell’s emotional state.

“What distinguishes this next six hours is the journey into his emotional life and inner life, and that is the essence of great drama,” Callender continues. “There is much more in this series about Cromwell and his personal life in the context of the world in which he’s living – a dangerous world where making a mistake ends up with having your head cut off. But in this drama, there’s more time spent with Cromwell re-examining what he’s done in the past and where his life is going in a way that wasn’t part of the storytelling in the first six hours.”

Jonathan Pryce will return to play Cardinal Wolsey

Sadly, Mantel – who twice won the Booker Prize for Wolf Hall and Bringing Up The Bodies – died in 2022 as Straughan was writing The Mirror & The Light. “So in many ways, this six hours is a tribute to Hilary,” Callender says.

Before Mantel passed away, Kosminsky and Straughan spent time with the author discussing the book, asking her questions and exploring her interest in the story. Then Straughan went away to map out the emotional heart of the adaptation.

“It was complicated in terms of distilling the book again into six hours and doing right by Hilary’s extraordinary writing. Then there was a collaborative period between the two Peters,” Callender notes, “so that we could actually understand how the show would be shot. It’s what happens all the time with every writer. We’ve ended up with a remarkable set of scripts.”

Looking back on the success of season one, Callender says nobody involved in the show anticipated the critical acclaim it received. So when he, Kosminsky and Straughan began to plot how they would make The Mirror & The Light, they determined to match their previous efforts.

That includes the way the series is filmed and cast. “Peter shot it with his cinematographer, Gavin Finney, and they had this idea of a handheld camera taking us into the world [of the show],” the exec says. “But the other thing was this mix of talent, of established talent and newcomers. Bringing back Mark, Damian and Jonathan and then bringing in Harriet Walter [as Lady Margaret Pole], Timothy Spall [The Duke of Norfolk] and Harry Melling [Thomas Wriothesley], we’ve put together a glorious royalty of British acting, but at the same time bringing in young actors and new actors and giving them a chance to shine.

Also coming back for the new season is Kate Phillips, portraying Jane Seymour

“We’ve spent a lot of time finding and casting an exciting repertoire of young actors and mixing them up with the established actors, and having actors from stage, film and television.”

While the scripts were being written and the cast was being reassembled, Callender says his own role was akin to a circus performer spinning a dozen plates at once while waiting for the right moment to set the cameras rolling.

“Covid made it even more complicated. We had a couple of dates when we were going to shoot earlier, which we had to delay. But we’re there,” he says. “We’re in the middle of production. It’s looking extraordinary. The actors are as great as they ever were – and what’s interesting is to have actors playing a role they played 10 years ago, but just five minutes after the first season ended. It’s very rich and it’s very exciting to see it come together.”

The 85-day shoot is taking place entirely on location, largely at National Trust properties across the country. But in order to avoid tourist crowds during the peak summer months, shooting began towards the end of last year, with a break over the Christmas and New Year period. Kosminsky also enjoyed an extended rehearsal spell with the cast before arriving on set.

Lilit Lesser plays Princess Mary

“It’s a real four-dimensional challenge,” Callender says of producing Wolf Hall. “I have to take off my hat to the production team, but the fun of it is that we are taking the actors to the places where the events took place. They are walking into rooms where the events took place, and that adds an extraordinary sense of being there.

“One of the things we did last time, and we do it again, is we’re lighting the show with natural light. What’s interesting, of course, is in the 10 years since the first time, digital cameras have really advanced, so we’re able to really shoot in situations using candles and so on, but protect the ability of the audience to see what’s on the screen. It’s glorious.”

The television business itself has changed irreversibly over the past decade amid the growth of streaming platforms and the huge amount of content available to viewers at the touch of a button. But Callender believes the audience desire for quality programming remains the same. “I’ve always felt that if you follow the great material, everything else will fall into place. Wolf Hall couldn’t be a finer example of just that,” he says.

When the exec first considered buying the rights to Mantel’s novel, he was told that in the wake of Showtime’s The Tudors, no broadcaster would be interested in buying Wolf Hall. “And I said, ‘No, that’s a mistake. The Tudors has actually created an opportunity to do Wolf Hall because this is the real story.’”

Now, with Wolf Hall: The Mirror & The Light finally set to arrive, “I think you can look forward to seeing an example of the finest drama that only we in Britain can make.”

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