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Saturday 16 December 2017

Viewing figures are a crude guide to a series worth

Anne Boleyn (CLAIRE FOY), Thomas Cromwell (MARK RYLANCE)
Anne Boleyn (CLAIRE FOY), Thomas Cromwell (MARK RYLANCE)
Programme Name: Wolf Hall - TX: n/a - Episode: Generics (No. 1) - Picture Shows: Anne Boleyn (CLAIRE FOY) - (C) Company Productions Ltd - Photographer: Giles Keyte

A STORY in a British newspaper last week boldly declared: “Wolf Hall is making headlines for all the wrong reasons.”

What would they be? The Downton-like historical howlers that litter every episode?

No, because there aren’t any. The television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels was, like the books themselves, impeccably researched, right down to the size of the codpieces men wore in those days (hint: the more powerful you were, the larger your lunchbox).

Then it has to be the cheapjack production, yes? Wrong again. The BBC spared no expense in recreating Tudor England, even filming, whenever possible, in some of the actual locations where the events depicted took place.

Ah, then surely it must be the dreadful performances? Ah, then surely you’re having a laugh? The performances by everyone involved, but especially Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell and Damian Lewis as King Henry VIII, are superb.

The headline-making problems – though in truth, I haven’t actually come across any headlines on the subject – supposedly plaguing Wolf Hall are more prosaic. The ratings have slipped since the first episode last month. It started out with a UK audience of four million but will most likely settle at around the 2.5 million mark.

Maybe that’s a bit less than the BBC would like, but for a period drama heavy on dialogue and complex plotting  and light on what you might call conventional action (there’s neither a joust nor a sword fight to be seen so far), it’s perfectly respectable.

Wolf Hall and Count Arthur Strong don’t have a lot in common, other than that both feature top-notch acting and writing talent, and both have drawn comparatively small audiences – although in the case of Steve Delaney and Graham Linehan’s lovely sitcom, things are looking up.

dizzying

The first season of Count Arthur Strong went out on BBC2 in 2013 and pulled in 971,000 viewers. Since its transfer to BBC1 this year, in a later time slot than before, the audience has increased to 1.8 million.

Wolf Hall was never going to be as popular as Last Tango in Halifax, no more than Count Arthur was ever going to reach the dizzying ratings heights of Mrs Brown’s Boys.

Big deal. So what? Why should they aspire to anyway? Television is supposed to be – and for a long time genuinely was – about offering choice. Things would become pretty boring pretty quickly if all murder mysteries were carbon copies of Midsomer Murders, all crime dramas were clones of Love/Hate and all sitcoms featured an Irish granny mounting a plastic tree every Christmas.

Unfortunately, this seems to be the direction in which television is moving. It’s becoming a homogenised medium where the audience share figure and not the quality is the only barometer of whether a drama or comedy is a success or a failure. Well, not quite the only one. There’s also social media.

These days, no comedy or drama can expect to make it through even its first episode without innumerable, usually negative, running commentaries on Twitter.

Wolf Hall is a rare species of drama: it’s beautifully produced, literate and intelligent and it assumes the viewers are intelligent too and won’t require every plot development to be slowly spoon-fed to them in infant-friendly portions. We should be grateful for it.

But the Twitter critics have been predict-

ably lunkheaded. They complain that it’s too dark, that it’s too hard to follow, that it’s just plain boring. Broadcasters pay attention to Twitter. Too much attention. Tot up the negative tweets and the low ratings and drama like Wolf Hall will soon be an extinct species.

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