Charity Wakefield on her role in Wolf Hall and her favourite Sussex places
PUBLISHED: 12:18 17 February 2015 | UPDATED: 12:08 03 November 2017
She describes herself as "period drama girl". She is currently on our screens playing Mary Boleyn in BBC Two's adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. And she recently found time to open a retro clothes shop. This year looks set to be a fine vintage for Bexhill actress Charity Wakefield
Recollect, if you will, what seems now to be a galaxy far, far away: history belongs in the classroom, and children employ mnemonics to fasten the fates of Henry VIII’s wives in their minds.
At the moment history is cool again, and it is arguable that it is Henry’s court that provides the most fascination – perhaps even titillation.
So the revelation that the BBC would be adapting Hilary Mantel’s multi award-winning books chronicling Thomas Cromwell’s ascent up the greasy pole and into Henry’s inner circle was received with jubilation. Cast announcements were front page news.
Bexhill actress Charity Wakefield plays Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary – a woman who, Charity says, “paves the way for her sister”. So this must be quite a moment, professionally speaking? “It’s really exciting, yes. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are such amazing and iconic novels, and to be the first team to bring them to the screen is really quite something.”
Charity’s breakout role was as Marianne Dashwood in another BBC adaptation, Andrew Davies’ Sense and Sensibility (2008). It was a part she felt passionately that she could play, and the critics agreed. Since then, she has continued to assemble a portfolio of great roles including Anya in The Cherry Orchard at the National Theatre and Land Fothergill in Channel 4’s adaptation of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart. She does seem to be the casting directors’ go-to girl for literary adaptations. Indeed, she laughingly says: “I seem to be period drama girl: it’s very rare that I do anything that’s set now.”
This new series could be her biggest success yet. Hilary Mantel has been quoted as saying that the adaptation exceeds her expectations, and has particularly praised the attention to historical detail. Wolf Hall, directed by Peter Kosminsky, stars Homeland’s Damian Lewis as Henry VIII and The Globe’s Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, while Claire Foy (Little Dorrit, The Promise) plays Anne Boleyn. In Mantel’s world, life is played out on a knife edge, where strategy is all – the quicker the ascent, the steeper the fall. Charity says that this environment informed her character:
“I wanted to portray the truth of a woman living in that situation at that time. It is much more dangerous, dark and cold in the Tudor court than it is now. Anybody could be killed at any time, you have to remember that.”
This is a production vast in scope, and it wasn’t without its privations. Shooting took place in a variety of locations including six National Trust properties. “You’re in these great big cathedrals that are really cold, you have very long days and everybody is in these incredibly painful period costumes. The dress itself had an in-built corset – there are so many layers and it’s so complicated that you just don’t really take it off.” Costume was key to getting into character, says Charity – who, with the rest of the cast, had lessons in Tudor etiquette from TV historian Ruth Goodman (Tudor Monastery Farm).
Mary Boleyn was by all accounts quite a woman. She became the mistress of the King of France, who called her his “English mare”, after travelling with Mary Tudor to form part of her court as the Queen of France. Upon her return to England, and newly married, Mary became Henry’s consort. Charity says that at the time: “Anybody would do it if they were in her shoes. She was born into a certain life. Families all over the land, I’m sure, were training their daughters to become one of the main King’s consorts.”
And the Boleyn sisters, especially Anne, managed it beautifully. Charity says: “I think they did have a great deal of power and guile. They must have been very charismatic, winsome and beautiful, which is what drew all of these people to them.” But if Anne was a scheming strategist, Mary was something of a party girl: “She is described as being incredibly merry and gracious, generous and fun-loving; she is warm, very funny and boisterous,” says Charity. “There was talk of her learning how to perform certain sexual acts in the French court.
“If they [the Boleyn sisters] had power, they certainly knew how to wield it.”
But Mary’s position was not secure. After Anne supplanted her in the King’s affections, Mary lost her husband to the sweating sickness and found herself with children to support (two of them possibly fathered by Henry), and no steady income. “In the book, and probably more so in our adaptation, she’s actually in quite a dangerous position. She relies on the benevolence of her sister which, as we find, runs out.”
What’s past is prologue
Charity attended Claverham Community College and Bexhill College. Her family is still in Sussex, and she visits as much as she can. A couple of years ago she had an acting job in America in Mockingbird Lane (a television film based on The Munsters) where two worlds collided in rather an interesting way. “Eddie Izzard played Grandpa Munster and I played his granddaughter, Marilyn Munster. I found out that he’s from the Bexhill area and we got on really well…” The two bonded over the peripatetic life of an actor. “I really admire him because he does so much for Bexhill, particularly the De La Warr Pavilion. He puts lots of money into arts projects and he is always thinking creatively about what he can do and how he can be involved. I hope that when I am as rich and famous as him I can do the same thing!”
Charity originally wanted to be an archaeologist and did work experience at Bexhill Museum “…but it was so boring because I had to categorise loads of tiny shells. I was just putting loads of tiny shells into bags. I remember thinking ‘Mmm, this archaeology thing… there’s a lot of administration’.”
Charity recently opened a vintage shop in South East London called Charlie Foxtrot Vintage with her business partner, Frances Miller. They also make short films together, including Memento Vitae, which deals with costumes as artefacts. It’s quite a thing, balancing a business with an acting career that can take you far from home at a moment’s notice, but “I have always had a very busy life and my brain has always been quite busy.”
Charity initially held back from an acting career, only deciding to fully commit after taking a gap year after school. She cites the uncertainty, but I think it’s that active cerebrum – she just didn’t want to categorise herself. Once she had made the decision ,“I thought to myself, if this works out then hopefully you’ll get to play lots of different parts that mean you’re engaging in lots of different subjects and periods of history, and you’re learning lots of new skills.
“I have been so lucky that I have been able to do all the different things I wanted to do through acting. I have learnt to horse-ride, to sword-fight, I have wandered around beautiful old country estates in Regency dress in Sense and Sensibility: I feel so lucky to have that as a job. I always treasure it and if it ever runs out I will think I’ve had a good innings.”
It is an oft-repeated credo of historians that looking to the past helps us better understand the present. And for this Bexhill actress, portraying the past is paving the way to a glittering future.
My favourite Sussex
• Place to visit - I love the De La Warr Pavilion, it’s so beautiful. That promenade on Bexhill seafront, I used to go there as a kid all the time. I particularly love the sea and I really miss it, living in London as I do. Sometimes it’s so nice just to take a deep breath and sit by the sea. I recently wanted to get a beach hut but they’re really expensive, I can’t possibly do it!
• Shop - Bexhill has really cool, tiny old teashops and there are a lot of really lovely vintage places. I have a vintage shop in London so I’m predisposed to being interested in that. I love the Old Town in Hastings and there’s an amazing shop there called The Home Store that I went into the other day. It’s a totally refurbished Victorian shop and they have exposed the skeleton of the house. They have merchandised that shop so beautifully.
• Building - I love Hastings Pier and I used to go there a lot as a kid. I used to go clubbing on the end of the pier. My Nan is in a retirement home near the pier and I remember when the pier burnt down, going to visit my Nan and a lot of the elderly ladies were just so sad about it because of the history. They used to go to dances at the end of the pier – as I did, but perhaps a different type of dancing!
A friend of mine from school has been on the panel and has been quite instrumental in raising money to bring Hastings Pier back. It’s a sort of co-op situation now. They’ve got government funding but also a lot of local people have stakes in the pier, so it’s going to be quite exciting when that fully opens.
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