Wolf Hall is a history lesson in power

Wolf Hall depicts the dehumanizing effects of power pursued for its own sake. Acting without impunity, irresponsible power undermines common morality for selfish motives. Jimmy Savile is a case in point.

Geoffrey Heptonstall
12 March 2015

Jimmy Savile. Flickr/Downing Street. Some rights reserved.

Wolf Hall made good television. The hope is that there will be more because the narrative does not end with the death of Anne Boleyn. Thomas Cromwell is an intriguing figure. My memories of A-level history precluded me from ploughing through Hilary Mantel’s novels. But the actual history was part of my childhood. I grew up knowing that Wolsey was arrested two villages away, that the Pilgrimage of Grace was raised close by, and that the Holbein portrait of Henry VIII was just a little further away at Castle Howard. It made early Tudor history a part of local folklore. The beautiful ruins of abbeys closed by Cromwell made a good day out, the poignancy of their desolation acting as counterpoint to the paradisal landscapes. It was a visit to an abandoned culture, evidence in stone of an overwhelming and irreversible change in the social and economic nature of sixteenth century England.

I seized upon Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, although Tawney was not on the reading list. Among the histories that were required reading included the obvious names: S.T. Bindoff,  A.G. Dickens and G.R. Elton [academics modestly hiding their identities behind initials]. Bindoff I recall as very writerly. Elton was dry but thorough. Elton’s Cromwell, meticulously researched, is a man without a conscience, a time-serving functionary who enforced his master’s will without restraint, without conviction and without the least scruple. His countenance and manner were without affectation. He made no secret of his humble origins. Nor did he use his background to promote himself. He accommodated himself to his rise in circumstance. Intelligent, rational even, he was furtive, bland and banal. He was Eichmann.

Mantel’s Cromwell is more nuanced. Preparing the background with careful research, she has sought to explore the man within. These are intuitive, imaginative explorations, an artist’s response. How true it is to history is for historians to decide. How far it succeeds on the page I have yet to discover. On the screen the Cromwell we see is revealing in his enigmatic, elusive shadows. The success of this portrayal is entirely due to an outstanding performance by Mark Rylance. His is a master class in how to convey depth without a word spoken, without the least expression. How does he do it? This has been so much richer than we could hope to expect. It may not raise our sympathy for Cromwell, but it forges a kind of respect. Or, if not that, then some understanding.

It is Cromwell’s silence, in the Wolf Hall adaption, that is so chilling. Robert Bolt’s Cromwell [in A Man for All Seasons] was vociferous. It was Thomas More who kept his counsel. Mantel’s More is deeply flawed. But the lives of saints reveals they are men and women only too aware of their failings. More’s virtue was that he held steadfast knowing he would lose everything. How many of us can dare say we would do the same?

The Wolsey of Orson Welles and the Henry of Robert Shaw, tantalizingly brief as those cameos were, have set the template for the past half century. In their different ways they are equally corrupt, one by a lifetime of compromise, the other by a frivolous attitude to serious matters. The Wolf Hall Wolsey and Henry are certainly equal to those masterly sketches in Zinneman’s film, but perhaps do not surpass them. It is Rylance especially who makes the difference (in a generally excellent cast).

It is hard indeed to see from where evil comes and why evil things are done by people who are conscious of the moral choices. One reason is that people are caught up in events. We are fortunate, most of us, not to have known the temptations, the peer-group pressures, and the morally devastating effects of societal breakdown. Even in a stable, liberal society going against the grain of conventional wisdom may look foolish or perverse or wicked. Any pardon is likely to be posthumous. It is safer to keep silent, although the world is made better by those who dare to speak up.

The problem is that some wicked acts are performed by those who think they are speaking up. There are Jihadists who see themselves as heroes as they execute (against Islamic traditions) innocent humanitarians. It is not heroism that motivates these executioners. It is power.

Power is not to be accepted lightly. It is energizing, sometimes overwhelmingly so. To use power wisely you need power over your power. If it takes you over it destroys you, a step at a time. You have the power to say no when you could say yes. You have the power to insist when others demur. Control over others can be a potent aphrodisiac. It can induce contempt for others, encouraging arrogance and cruelty.

Savile is an obvious example. His crimes were indictable, and the regret is that he was never indicted. But there are everyday instances of the insensitive and the manipulative that are not crimes to be indicted. They are legal highs of power. It is disturbing to hear a broadcast producer asserting an ‘absolute right’. An absolute right? Without any of the restraints occasioned by personal conscience, by legal necessity, by possible consequence, by moral obligation, by responsibility to others? A right unaccountable to colleagues, associates and to society at large? There are bounds on us that must be respected if we are to articulate and develop a civilized response in an often barbarous world.

The use of the word ‘empowerment’ ought to be a contentious matter. It is spoken of benignly to advocate a sense of control rather than of being controlled. (The talk used to be of liberation.) Of course it is right to enable young people to say no to things that will harm them, to things they should not be compelled to do. It is not power they need, but authority. The telling aspect of a person with authority is the respect they command. They rarely need to exercise power. It is the difference between Captain Cook and Lieutenant Bligh. Cook hardly ever used the lash, and never to excess. He had no need of it.

Gaining that authority is not easy. Savile had no authority that came from knowledge, talent, or sincerity. He had charm of a kind, a quack doctor’s gift of projecting a personality. He insinuated his way into society by a volition that did not seem to threaten. He was the amiable idiot-savant who sprinkled stardust. He sought authority by the back door. Famous only for relentless self-advertisement, he cherished the honours that spoke of social and cultural achievements he did not possess. He cared for nothing beyond himself. Broadcast interviews were crafty evasions, although Louis Theroux came close. The glimpse of a darker side broke through the showbiz façade. The confessed emotion was Oedipal. That left often the question of his sexuality. It left open the question of his motivating forces. He could not form mature relationships. Who exactly were his friends? He knew people, but did they know him?

But he was thought to have made good television. The drama about his crimes will be interesting to watch – if anyone has the stomach to play the part.


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