Branagh to Play Tudor Sleuth
BBC Picks Actor-director to Play Hunchback Agent of Henry VIII As It Focuses on Landmark Projects
The Observer, 18 November 2007
Kenneth Branagh, the Oscar-nominated actor and director, is to star as a 16th-century detective in a major new BBC TV series.
He is to follow the path of other celebrated performers, such as Derek Jacobi, who have found popular success solving crimes while dressed in period costume.
Branagh, 46, plans to take the role of a hunchback lawyer named Shardlake who works for the key power brokers of the Tudor court, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer. Negotiations to bring Shardlake, the idiosyncratic character at the centre of a series of mystery novels by CJ Sansom, to the small screen are believed to be in their final stages.
Sansom's three books have won praise for their evocations of the brutality of life in the Tudor period and for his strength as a storyteller. His disabled hero lives and works in Lincoln's Inn in the 1540s.
Branagh's return to television drama - the medium in which he first made his mark playing a young Northern Ireland boy, Billy Martin, in a landmark Play For Today trilogy in the early Eighties - marks a significant change of direction for the actor and film-maker, who has recently released screen versions of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" and Peter Shaffer's play "Sleuth".
The star and director of admired film adaptations of "Henry V", "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Hamlet" last appeared in a TV role in the acclaimed 2002 Channel 4 film "Shackleton", which told the story of the polar explorer's unsuccessful Antarctic expedition. Branagh, the former partner of actresses Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter, also won plaudits for his 2001 portrayal of Reinhard Heydrich in the award-winning Nazi drama "Conspiracy".
The actor now stands to be one of the first beneficiaries of the BBC's new strategy of commissioning 'fewer but bigger and better' projects, as outlined by the director-general, Mark Thompson.
The makers of the Shardlake series will be hoping to repeat the success of the Nineties drama series "Cadfael", which starred Jacobi as Ellis Peters's sleuthing 12th-century monk. The series ran over 13 films between 1994 and 1998, during which time Jacobi's habit-wearing Benedictine was called on to solve a succession of brutal murders.
A BBC commission of an adaptation of the first Sansom novel, "Dissolution", is expected to be followed by more of the Shardlake books. Sansom, a former solicitor who lives in Sussex, is working on a fourth Shardlake story and has been consulted on the TV series.
In "Dissolution", Shardlake, who supports religious reform, witnesses the viciousness of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries and has to cope with the aftermath of the murder of a commissioner who is overseeing the closure at Scarnsea on the Sussex coast.
The next two Shardlake books are "Dark Fire", in which he is involved in the defence of a girl accused of child murder, and "Sovereign", which sees the lawyer dispatched by Cranmer to York to escort a prisoner back to the Tower of London to undergo brutal questioning.
Sansom, who has a history PhD from Birmingham University, is completing a story called "Revelation", which the writer has suggested will tell of 'nasty things ... happening among the extreme Protestant sects in the capital'. After that, he hopes to produce a Shardlake novel set entirely in a courtroom. One critic has praised Sansom's 'superb approximation of the crucible of fear, treachery and mistrust that was Tudor England, and a memorably blood-swollen portrait of the ogreish Henry's inhumane kingship'.
One of Sansom's biggest fans is Colin Dexter, the creator of Inspector Morse, who said Dissolution was one of the best crime novels he had read in 2003.
TV's history squad
Christopher Foyle in Foyle's War
Marcus Didius Falco
Research by Luc Torres