Tudor Crime Show Creator Wants You “to Fall in Love With Shardlake”

New four-part historical crime drama Shardlake is about a conscience-led hero in a dangerous world.

Shardlake Disney
Photo: Hulu

“I don’t think I’m projecting at all!” screenwriter Stephen Butchard tells Den of Geek about the crossover between modern and 16th century politics in new four-part historical crime drama Shardlake. “It’s the same. I don’t consider [Shardlake] to be period or Tudor, it’s about people and we haven’t changed and probably will never change. Power corrupts.”

Shardlake is set during Henry VIII’s Reformation of the English church – a classic case of corruption, says Butchard, in which money promised to the poor ended up in the pockets of the rich. When the king’s man is killed at a monastery, Thomas Cromwell sends lawyer Matthew Shardlake to investigate. Find the killer, says Cromwell, and find proof of the monks’ crookedness so we can shut them down… or else, is the unspoken additional threat.

Cromwell the Charming Monster

That threat rings out as loud as a bell thanks to Sean Bean’s performance as Cromwell, the King’s ennobled fixer. “The way Sean plays it is just lovely,” says Butchard. “The smiles, the arm on the shoulder… there’s a weight there. It’s ‘don’t let me down’, and you’re terrified!” Bean’s Cromwell is a manipulator, says Butchard, “with a hint of charming monster.”

Butchard is thrilled to have Bean in the role (and to also have him play an undisclosed role in new BBC crime drama This City Is Ours, filming now). He grins remembering the actor’s delivery of the words “My Matthew” in episode four. “It’s just loaded with so much because Shardlake effectively is his Matthew. He’s his puppet, and Shardlake hates the fact that it’s true.”

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Shardlake’s Cromwell is a manipulator with an agenda he prioritises over all else. Described by a henchman in one episode as “not a man who cares much for truth unless it suits him,” it isn’t hard to see the approach of modern political leaders reflected in his own, Butchard agrees.

“What happens all the time with people in power, and it’s usually men, is that they become corrupted and there is a journey to hubris. The more power that they have, the more corrupted they become, and the Dissolution [of the English monasteries] is a classic case. It’s supposed to be money taken from the wealthy and given out and spread to the poor, but it never happened, it just never happened. And there’s lots of cases now where that’s similar. Levelling up doesn’t happen, it’s always promised by all politicians, but it’s pretty rare [that it actually happens].

“They always say that history repeats itself and it does. You see the same mistakes being made, you see the same promises being made. I don’t think it was too hard to project onto that.”

Shardlake the Good Man

What makes for good drama, says Butchard, is the conflict between good people and a corrupt world. Matthew Shardlake is heroic, he stresses. “For all his flaws, he’s a good man living in a violently oppressive and repressive, ugly religious world.”

The crime-investigating Tudor lawyer may appear pompous at times, allows Butchard, but that self-belief is a necessity for a man like Shardlake, who lives with a visible disability in the unenlightened 16th century, and it’s what made Butchard fall for Shardlake as a character. “I like that there’s a little bit of hubris. He is kind of pleased with himself,” Butchard tells Den of Geek. “With his disability, he has to be his own coach. He has to pump himself up because he’s afraid of losing whatever power he has. He knows that he’s vulnerable.”

Actor Arthur Hughes conveys the character’s vulnerability beautifully, says Butchard, especially in tricky scenes where Shardlake voices his conscience aloud to himself, or is tormented by visions of the dead. “He’s very much a reformer, but also he wants to reform in a proper way. He’s a very honest man.”

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Truth and justice, as Shardlake tells a monastery novice in episode one, are his currency. “That’s what’s wonderful about him,” says Butchard, “they are his currency. In his essence, he is good. Once upon a time, he was a godly man and now he’s questioned faith but he’s not questioning the goodness of what faith is supposed to represent – love thy neighbour. That’s still intrinsic to who he is. He’s realising that you don’t need to be a godly man to be a good man.”

You Want Shardlake to Succeed

Hughes’ Shardlake is a younger man than the character devised by celebrated novelist CJ Sansom in his book series. His relative youth makes him “maybe less jaded”, says Butchard. He still hasn’t given up on finding romance. “He’s still lonely, he still would love to fall in love,” says Butchard. “For all his mistakes, you want him to succeed in his personal life.”

If future TV adaptations are commissioned (Sansom, who sadly died this month following a long illness, left a seven-strong book series behind) then Butchard would like to explore the character’s potential romances from the novels while developing their hero. “It’s much more of a solo show than [Butchard’s previous historical adaptation] The Last Kingdom’s ensemble. He is such a complex character, Shardlake, so it’ll be about growing him.” Butchard wants people to fall in love with Shardlake in the same the way that he has.

Overall though, he stresses, Sansom’s books are primarily crime novels. “You always want to maintain that.” If there are more TV series to come, fans can expect more fiction wrapped around historical truths, more dastardly villainy, admirable heroism and “lots more mysteries!”

Shardlake is streaming now exclusively on Disney+ in the UK, and on Hulu in the US.