Author Hilary Mantel says UK needs written constitution

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By Rebecca Jones-Arts correspondent

https://www.bbc.com-image caption Dame Hilary Mantel has studied and written about political dramas in British history

Award-winning Wolf Hall author Dame Hilary Mantel says the UK needs a written constitution “to stop rogue prime ministers illegally interfering with the workings of Parliament”.

Her comments come after Boris Johnson advised the Queen to suspend Parliament at the height of 2019’s Brexit crisis.

“It’s quite evident that when Boris Johnson attempted to do that, it was for the courts to stop him,” she says.

The Supreme Court later ruled the move to suspend Parliament was unlawful.

Mr Johnson said he “profoundly disagreed” with the ruling from the UK’s highest court.

Dame Hilary tells the BBC: “If people will not play by the established rules and by the canons of decency, then we are going to have to have rules in place that restrain them.

“It’s a sad position to come to, because I think the flexibility of our unwritten constitution was a historical wonder,” she adds.

“But I think there will have to be a reckoning in the next few years.”

Dame Hilary is making these comments as she announces the world premiere of the stage adaptation of The Mirror and the Light, the third book in her Thomas Cromwell series focusing on the political intrigue during the reign of King Henry VIII, which will open in London’s West End in September.

 

What is the UK’s unwritten constitution?

A constitution is a legal document which sets out the terms and conditions under which a country or state is governed. The UK is unusual, as unlike the majority of countries, its constitution is not written or codified in a single document.

Instead, under the UK’s unwritten system, a vast array of different laws, customs and conventions, that have evolved over centuries, make up the constitution.

Supporters argue it offers greater flexibility: it can evolve and adapt to reflect changes in society. Some say that many of the world’s most repressive regimes have written constitutions.

Detractors say unwritten constitutions are open to ambiguity and can be subject to numerous interpretations. One example is the opposing interpretations taken by the government and the Supreme Court over whether Parliament could be suspended during the Brexit crisis in 2019.

The prime minister said he wanted to outline his government’s policies in a Queen’s Speech on 14 October 2019, and to do that, Parliament would have to be prorogued and a new session started.

Critics said he was trying to stop MPs scrutinising his Brexit plans. During prorogation, MPs cannot debate government policy or ask written or oral questions of ministers.

The UK’s final Court of Appeal said it was wrong to stop MPs carrying out their duties in the run-up to the Brexit deadline on 31 October. The prime minister said although he “profoundly disagreed” with the ruling he would “respect” it.

Dame Hilary, 68, is a shrewd observer of political drama that spans the ages. “I think what my books have tried to show is that there is no life without politics,” she says.

She has been immersed in Tudor politics for more than 15 years, working on her Wolf Hall trilogy of historical novels about the plots and intrigues at the court of King Henry VIII and the rise and fall of his chief adviser Thomas Cromwell.

‘I need a collaborator’

Dame Hilary has spent the past year writing the play of The Mirror and the Light herself. She says she wanted to “give it a go”.

But, perhaps surprisingly for a writer of 14 works of fiction and a memoir, she was not sure she could do it on her own.

“Although I’d written plays for radio… I’ve not written a whole stage play by myself. I felt my inexperience,” she admits. “I thought, ‘I need a collaborator.'”

Ben Miles, who starred as Cromwell in the Royal Shakespeare Company productions of Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring up the Bodies, suggested himself as “co-pilot” on the project.

The pair had become close friends and Miles, who played Peter Townsend in The Crown and John Profumo in The Trial of Christine Keeler on television, has also recorded the audio books for all three novels.

With Dame Hilary at home in Devon and Miles in London, the pair worked almost entirely via email over the past “difficult year” due to Covid-19 restrictions.

That was not the only challenge. They needed to turn a 912-page epic, with a colossal cast of characters, into a two-and-a-half hour play.

“The hardest task for us was what we were going to include from the novel and what we weren’t,” says Miles, who will return to his role as Cromwell when The Mirror and the Light opens at the Gielgud Theatre.

They hope they have managed to turn the “vast” book into “a really entertaining evening”, Dame Hilary says.

‘It’s not a marathon’

“Audience members need not fear that they are going to have to bring along a picnic,” she jokes. “It’s not a marathon. It’s not intimidating. It’s nothing to be afraid of.”

The television adaptation of The Mirror and the Light is on its way too. “It is going ahead. It’s being written now, but delayed by Covid like everything else,” she says.

It is therefore unlikely to be on our screens before 2023. “It’s just a question of patience.” The previous BBC TV adaptation of the first two books – which was entitled Wolf Hall but brought together Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies – won two Bafta TV awards, and a Golden Globe.

She says she “would certainly hope” that Sir Mark Rylance, who played Cromwell in the BBC series and Damian Lewis, who appeared as Henry VIII, will be able to return to their roles, although “these are busy people with big schedules and it will all be a question of timing”.

While all three books will eventually make it on to the stage and screen, there was to be no historic triple Booker Prize win for Dame Hilary.

She triumphed in 2009 for Wolf Hall and again in 2012 with Bring up the Bodies, making her the first woman to win twice. But The Mirror and the Light failed to make the shortlist.

‘Glad to be free’ of Booker

She was, she says, disappointed. But not for long.

“I experienced that falling sensation for all of five seconds. And then I thought, onwards and upwards, because I breathed out and I thought, now I can get on with different things. I can actually move on.

“I was glad to be free.”

Looking to the future she says: “I think I will write another novel. I have something just forming up. I don’t really want to even breathe on it at the moment by speaking about it in public, because sometimes, you never know, these things don’t work.

“But yes, I hope to write another novel, and possibly another play.”

The Mirror and the Light will run at the Gielgud Theatre in London from 23 September to 28 November.

 

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