‘It’s taken a Tudor lifetime to get it made’: How Shardlake finally got the TV treatment

Arthur Hughes in Shardlake
'The camera loves Arthur': Arthur Hughes in Shardlake - Disney/Martin Mlaka
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Given the predilection in tele­vis­ion these days for turning bestsellers into binge-­watches, it’s something of a shock to realise that it’s taken producer Stevie Lee more than two decades to bring C J Sansom’s Tudor ­murder-mystery novels to the screen. ­Sansom granted her the rights to his first novel, Dissolution, featuring the lawyer-turned-­detective Matthew Shardlake – dub­bed the “Tudor Morse” – back in 2003.

It should have been an easy sell. Sansom’s novels have sold more than four million copies. We are obsessed with dramas about the Tudors. And Shardlake, like Morse, is a brilliant, flawed antihero. His decency and sense of honour shine in a world of flattery and hypocrisy (his creator was a lawyer for many years, representing the less ­privileged). But Shardlake is also dis­abled (he has curvature of the spine), which marks him out as an outsider in super­stitious 16th-century England.

Lee planned to make a film with Kenneth Branagh as Shardlake. But despite the backing of the BFI and “Ken’s name and total passion for it”, she couldn’t get it made. In 2007, the BBC optioned the novels, with Branagh attached again. But then it announced it was adapting Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Shardlake was deemed too similar, so Bran­agh signed up for Wallander instead.

ITV was keen, but couldn’t make the money work. It was only when Lee joined forces with the production company The Forge (National Treasure, Help) that things started moving again. Last year, Disney+ finally greenlit the drama. “It’s taken me a Tudor lifetime to get it made,” Lee laughs.

Adapted by The Last Kingdom’s Stephen Butchard, and directed by Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl, Becoming Elizabeth), Shardlake has an enviable supporting cast: Sean Bean as Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell; Peter Firth as the Duke of Norfolk; Paul Kaye as Brother Jerome; and Babou Ceesay as Abbot Fabian.

Sean Bean plays Henry VIII's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell
Sean Bean plays Henry VIII's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell - Disney+

One quirk of having to wait so long to make Shardlake is that the producers felt emboldened to cast a disabled actor – Arthur Hughes – in the lead role, rather than a Branagh. Indeed, casting an able-bodied actor as Shardlake might now be considered an insult – just look at the recent furore when it was announced that the Globe’s artistic director, Michelle Terry, an able-bodied actress, would be playing the title role in Richard III.

“In the current climate, both Disney and The Forge felt we should have an actor with a disability playing the part of Shardlake,” says the co-producer John Griffin. “And Arthur, who was at the RSC playing Richard III, was becoming available, so he was an obvious person to approach.”

Hughes already has a promising television career (The Innocents, Then Barbara Met Alan), plus a CV that includes stage roles at the RSC and the Globe. Fans of The Archers will know him as the troubled Ruairi Donovan. But playing ­Matthew Shardlake will catapult him to another league. “Shardlake is wonderful,” Hughes enthuses. “He has ideals that are more modern than the time he lives in. He’s like a lie detector, he can just tell when someone’s lying.”

At 32, Hughes is 10 years younger and a lot hotter than Sansom’s original hero. In the TV drama, the ­lawyer-sleuth rides hard and fights with swords. But Hughes clearly feels an affinity with Shardlake’s physical challenges. “When you’re a disabled actor playing a disabled part, you do have that lived experience. You know what it’s like not to be picked for something or to be stared at or made to feel different. You have to generate your own self-confidence engine, which has to be five times bigger than everyone else’s. To really love yourself, instead of hating yourself. My personal journey is one of going, ‘Is my disability something that’s holding me back or taking me forward?’ Shardlake has that journey.”

Shardlake suffers the indignity of being abused as a “crookback” and a “hunchback” by courtiers and servants. But those words were never used between actors and crew, Griffin stresses, “We wrote a thing on the front of the scripts to say he is described in the series as a hunchback, that’s what characters call him. But we talk about his ‘condition’. He’s playing a guy who has scoliosis.”

One of the pleasures of the show is the relationship between Shardlake (Arthur Hughes, left) and his sidekick Jack Barak (Anthony Boyle)
One of the pleasures of the show is the relationship between Shardlake (Arthur Hughes, left) and his sidekick Jack Barak (Anthony Boyle) - Disney+

For Hughes it was an important gesture. “Disabled people don’t like to be called these archaic names. I think people should always do this in productions if there’s ever anything like this. Because language is powerful, certainly with the representation of disability.”

It’s just a safety thing, he adds. “I’ve been in situations before where it does bleed over. People adopt that language, saying things like: ‘And then the crookback comes in.’ And it’s like: ‘Hold on, you’re talking about me there.’”

Shardlake is a passion project for Lee, whose own son is disabled and autistic. “If I’d made Shardlake 20 years ago with Ken, it would have been amazing. But when you watch the drama, you’ll see Arthur is the best of all the people I’ve ever wanted to cast.” Though Lee stresses Shardlake is a “great big rollicking mystery adventure”, with ghosts and things that go bang in the night. This isn’t worthy TV. “It feels really filmic and adventurous.”

What’s compelling about Sansom’s novels (unlike Wolf Hall) is that Henry VIII, Cromwell and Elizabeth I are background characters. Ordinary people are centre stage. “Though Cromwell is a terrifying presence,” says Griffin. “Sean Bean flew in to film for a short time, but, God, he was brilliant.”

As the four-part drama opens, the king has broken with Rome, and a team of commissioners, led by Cromwell, is investigating the monasteries. When one commissioner is found dead, head severed from his body, at the monastery of Scarnsea on the Sussex coast, Shardlake has to solve the crime. A passionate reformer, he is loyal to Cromwell. But his investigation forces him to question everything.

Filming took place in Hungary, Austria and Romania. For the monastery, they used an amalgam of the gothic-style Hunedoara Castle, in Transylvania, and Kreuzenstein Castle, a medieval palace outside Vienna. I meet the young cast on location near Budapest, where they’re filming in a purpose-built warehouse featuring Shardlake’s home and Cromwell’s office. They’ve clearly had a ball socialising in Budapest’s ruined bars, eating chicken paprikash. Lifelong friendships have been formed.

Indeed, one of the pleasures of the show is the slow-burn relationship between the cerebral Shardlake and his handsome sidekick Jack Barak (played by Anthony Boyle of Masters of the Air fame), who may be Cromwell’s spy. “When we screen-tested Arthur with Anthony, it was electric,” says Lee. “They are enormously good friends now, but at first it was similar to their relationship on screen.”

There was indeed riv­alry, Boyle laughs. He and Hughes both attended the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, where Hughes was adored by the tutors. Boyle remembers them saying to him, “If you can be as good as Arthur Hughes…”

For all his intelligence, Shardlake has terrible luck with women, like Morse. He looks on enviously as Barak flirts with love-interest Alice (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis, the daughter of Lorraine Ashbourne and Andy Serkis). “Shardlake is quite a lonely man,” says Hughes. “So when he’s in a situation with someone who’s kind to him and pretty, like any human being, he entertains the possibility of, ‘Well, why couldn’t I have that?’”

It’s usually women who panic about their bodies not being up to scratch, so it is moving to witness Shardlake’s vulnerability. “There’s something which Arthur brings, which is a kind of wound,” Lee agrees.

Babou Ceesay as Abbot Fabian in Shardlake
Babou Ceesay as Abbot Fabian in Shardlake - Disney/Adrienn Szabo

Sansom himself has written poignantly about how the bullying he experienced at school shaped him: “All my life I have found it impossible to trust others, or to allow them to get close to me.” The bond with Shardlake goes deep. Now 74, Sansom hasn’t visited the filming (in 2012 he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma). “But he’s seen rushes and all the designs. And he approved the casting.”

The production design on the show is gorgeous, from the abbot’s ermine slippers and Barak’s ornate codpieces to Ashbourne Serkis, who is framed like a Brueghel painting. But the cast suffered for their art. During night shoots, the actors in monks’ robes nearly froze, despite being encased in thermals. Boyle had the unenviable task of diving into a frozen lake in Transylvania to recover a sword. “It’s his Colin Firth moment,” Lee laughs.

Disney+ is hoping for a hit (there are six more novels, after all). ­Griffin thinks the drama has huge political relevance, with Henry’s decision to split from Rome echoing our decision to leave the European Union. “It’s so Brexit when you dig under it. The book is called Dissolution because it’s about the dissolution of the monasteries. But, actually, it’s about Shardlake’s disillusionment. He starts off thinking they are doing the right thing in closing the monasteries and that it will give money to the poor...”

Everyone mentions Hughes’s star quality. ­“People are really going to fancy Arthur,” Lee enthuses. “The camera loves him. He says everything with those eyes. You don’t even think about ­Matthew’s limb difference, or scoliosis. This is a massive opportunity to make people realise that being different physically means nothing more than having brown or blue eyes.”

Shardlake starts on Disney+ on May 1

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