May seems especially sweet this year after our cruel winter, and last week was particularly beautiful–with the wisteria and the dogwoods in full flower along with many of my favorite plants: bleeding hearts, Solomon seals, Alexanders, and lilies of the valley. It was also one of the busiest weeks of the academic year, with grading, senior events, and graduation, so I rushed around from place to place while still managing to stop and smell the lilacs. Warm days, cool nights: perfect hair and cotton sweater weather. Gorgeous, golden light in the late afternoon and early evening spilling into my north-facing front parlor. The only off-key event of these lyrical days was the Mad Men finale which was just not worthy, in my opinion: I don’t want to see Don Draper chanting om! Sorry for the digression–I just had to get that out there. Back to the real world, which I would like to always be May-like, but then, of course, May would not be May, but just everyday.
Pictures of May in Salem starting with a colonial musician walking down Chestnut Street, then the view from my bedroom, the view from my office, and lots and lots of flowers.
How many times have I read this story, taught this story, seen this story? Countless, yet I’ve been watching Masterpiece’s Wolf Hall faithfully and fervently these past two Sundays, despite some stiff competition. For reasons I don’t quite understand, Hilary Mantel’s novels have focused a trans-Atlantic public attention on the juicy story of Henry’s “great matter” yet again, resulting in adaptations on both the small screen and the stage right now. I like the language, the characterizations, and the details of the books–and these attributes carry over onto the screen as well, but the latter also gives us both more and less. So this is what I like about Wolf Hall:
1) Cromwell-centrism: as the Protestant product of a Catholic-Episcopalian union, I have admired Thomas Cromwell since I was a teenager, so Mantel’s “revisionist” perspective pleased me in the books and continues to do so on screen, especially as presented by the amazing actor Mark Rylance. It’s a timely corrective, after years of the reign of the heroic heretic-hunter Thomas More, whom Mantel depicts as a pompous prude.
2) Stillness: everything is so quiet, in stark contrast to all of the other recent Tudor films with their booming soundtracks. Too often contemporary music is utilized to strengthen a film that has weak dialogue or transitions–this is not the case here. You can hear every well-chosen word, the papers crackling and the birds singing.
3) Naturalism: though the Tudors admired material embellishment, for the most part it was based on nature, and this was a time in which people were much, much closer to nature than we can ever realize. Wolf Hall takes place primarily indoors, but nature is always present. So many animals! Just in episode #2 alone, we see just-born kittens, greyhounds black and white, Thomas More walking around with a white rabbit which he passes to our hero Thomas Cromwell, a monkey on the More table, and of course lots of horses. Cromwell pinches a flower as he walks to a stable-conference with yet another Thomas, Cranmer.
4) Spareness: of words, of spaces, of “action”. Restraint (and dim light) rules, and each excess points to a consequential problem.
5) We are spared Henry and Anne Boleyn together: of course, I’ve only watched the first two episodes, so this will change, but the Cromwellian perspective places the two “central” characters in this oft-told story on the margins for quite awhile. This is refreshing, and spares us all the “romance” and bodice-ripping of more predictable and commercial versions of this tale. Quite literally, the change in perspective enables us to see things in an entirely new light.
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell during filming for the BBC/ PBS adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall. Photograph: Ed Miller/BBC/Company Productions Ltd.
I am certainly saddened by the end of Downton Abbey’s season last week, but I am devastated by the conclusion of its lead-in, The Great British Baking Show, to which I became positively addicted. Everything about this show drew me in: the amiable (never snarky) contestants, the chatty hosts, the authoritative judges, and (most of all) the setting: a turreted tent in the midst of a perfect green English field dotted with sheep and bordered by blooming perennials. Under the tent, all is pastel perfection: the set designers seem to have taken their cues from the classic 1903 Book of Cakes by T. Percy Lewis and A.G. Bromley (which was reissued in 1991 as The Victorian Book of Cakes).
Great British Baking Show (Bake-Off in Britain) judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, this past season’s contestants under the tent, and a page from Lewis & Bromley’s Book of Cakes (1903).
I never knew baking was so difficult, requiring so much precision and patience! The weekly technical and “showstopper” challenges make those on Top Chef look like cakewalks. And all for the title of “star baker” and (the ultimate prize) an engraved cake plate. Victoria sponge cakes, Farthing biscuits, Swedish Princess cake, twenty-layer Schichttorte: these British bakers can do it all. I learned a lot (not that I will ever really use this knowledge) and really enjoyed being plunged into this cozy world on a weekly basis. I’ll miss all the people and all the pastry, and most especially all those beautiful Gorenje refrigerators on set, so much so that I might have to buy one for my own kitchen!
THE refrigerator; Berry and Hollywood with this season’s best baker, Nancy Birtwhistle.