Posts Tagged ‘Wolf Hall’

British TV history

February 11, 2018

In a post I published the other day, I commented on some (far from all) of the historical distortions perpetrated by the creator of the TV series Vikings, Michael Hirst. This is perhaps an extreme example of what is quite common in Brtish-written televised historical dramas, at least those written directly for TV. Those based on novels are different, since the good British historical novelists (Bernard Cornwell, Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel and their ilk) play freely with character and language but stick close to actual history.

In the same Michael Hirst’s The Tudors (mistitled because it’s only about Henry VIII, one of five Tudor monarchs, not to mention their illustrious Welsh predecessors), Henry’s two sisters Margaret (who married James IV of Scotland) and Mary (who married first an elderly king of France and, after he died, her brother’s friend Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk) are conflated into one, with Margaret’s name and Mary’s history, except that her elderly first husband is king of Portugal, not France.

Another recent example: in the currently airing Victoria, the queen is depicted as jealous of Albert’s friendship with the (unknown to her) mathematician Ada Lovelace, though in fact Ada had been presented at court and it was Victoria herself who, on the recommendation of her favorite politician, Lord Melbourne (who was a cousin of Ada’s mother), made Ada a countess by making her husband Earl of Lovelace. And when Albert’s father and brother, both named Ernest, visit London in 1844(?), both are portrayed as single while in fact both were married; the younger Ernest’s wife Alexandrine was to become a good friend of Victoria’s.

Interestingly enough, as cavalier as Vikings is about history, it tries to be realistic about language. While the dialogue is predominantly in English, accents are used to distinguish speakers of the original languages: all the actors playing Anglo-Saxon characters speak with a standard English accent (RP), those playing Scandinavians with a Scandinavian one, and those playing Franks with a French one. And in a situation where two languages are spoken, the actors actually speak in the original languages — Old English, Old Norse and Old French. (The last is a bit anachronistic, being in an 11th-century form of the language as found in the Song of Roland rather than that of the 9th-century Strasbourg Oaths, but that’s just  a petty quibble on my part.) The presence of the character Athelstan, who is Anglo-Saxon but speaks Norse (and teaches English to Ragnar), is crucial to the plot.

Consider, by contrast, the series The Last Kingdom, based on Bernard Cornwell’s novels, which covers the same ground as Vikings (the Scandinavian invasions of England) but is historically fairly accurate. While it uses the same accent convention as Vikings (even a modern Irish accent for an Irish character), it never makes clear which language is being spoken, since all the characters seem to understand one another without interpreters. (This is not the case in the novels, only in the TV series.)

Now, Victoria falsifies both history and language. Victoria is known to have spoken German with her mother, with her governess Baroness Lehzen, and with Albert. But in the series not only do they all explicitly speak English, but so does Albert with his brother and father, despite a few poorly pronounced German phrases here and there.

And I have already commented on language use in Wolf Hall (based on Hilary Mantel’s novels).

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KJV and ST

April 18, 2015

Wolf Hall, the BBC series, is currently airing on PBS in the United States. I have already read its namesake novel and the latter’s sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, and the TV series is reinforcing two strong reactions that the books provoked in me.

One is the use of language. Perhaps because it is heard and not merely read, the utter modernity of the characters’ English speech is even more striking on TV. I find it somewhat alienating, because it is so at odds with the costumes and setting and habits. It’s almost as if I expect Thomas Cromwell to pull out a mobile phone in order to check in with Henry VIII. What also struck me in the books, though it hasn’t done so yet on TV, is that when a character quotes the Bible he does so in the language of the King James Version, or perhaps that of Tyndale (the main basis of the KJV). In historical reality this is precisely the language in which they would have been conversing, while they would be quoting the Bible in Latin. Tyndale’s translation — written in the common language of his day — was just then being published, and owning it was forbidden. Those familiar with the Bible would know it only in Latin. And while Wolf Hall does not shrink from Latin speech by the characters, such speech does not include biblical quotations.

The King James Version is, in fact, not written in the English of King James (the First of England and Sixth of Scotland) but in that of James’s great-granduncle, Henry VIII. But once the Reformation took hold, the Tyndale translations became the basis of all the later English Bibles, and English and Scottish Protestants accepted its language — which is also that of the Book of Common Prayer — to be appropriately Biblical, including features that were pretty much obsolete in English by the early 17th century; for example, the use of “yes” or “no” only in response to questions in the negative, while questions in the affirmative were to be answered “yea” or “nay”; for another example, the use of “thou” as the singular second-person subject pronoun used between people of equal rank (except on the lowest rungs of the social scale, as still used — in the form tha — in rural Yorkshire). (“You” occurs once, in the Book of Ruth, and it was probably a slip that wasn’t caught.) I have a lot more to say about the linguistic infelicities of the KJV, and I will do so at some length in a later post.

My other reaction is to the portrayal of Thomas More as a highly unsympathetic character. I have no problem with such a characterization per se, nor with his being made a saint by the Catholic Church. The Church’s criteria for sainthood are its own, and concern mainly the person’s significance to its agenda. John of Capistrano, as I have written here, was one of history’s great Jew-haters. No, what bothers me is the fact that in British crosswords of the cryptic variety, of which I have recently become an addict,the clue “good man” is often used to refer to the letters ST. This is not the only such clue; since “St.” can also be the abbreviation of “street”, possible clues are also “street”, “way” or “road”. And we often say “he is a saint” as a way of saying that he is a very good man, but in that case we don’t (except jokingly) abbreviate “saint” as “St.” My point is that ST does not by itself denote a good man (or woman). Some saints have been good, some have been evil, and some in between, while what has historically been the most prominent qualification for sainthood, martyrdom, is neither good nor evil by itself. In fact, a simple acceptance of the fact that both good and evil are inherent in human nature — and on a continuum, not in a dualistic way, sometimes in the same person — obviates many a needless philosophical dilemma. When pro-religion advocates point to the many good things that people have done motivated by their faith, one need only respond by pointing  to the many evil things done with the same motivation as well as to the good things done out of innate altruism.

And so, when I write the letters S and T in their appropriate squares referenced by a clue that contains “good man”, I hope that the gnashing of my teeth reaches the setter’s ears.