‘Shardlake’ is a Tudor-era mystery series. It’s also a win for disabled characters, its star says


LONDON (AP) — Matthew Shardlake steps out of the pages of the late C.J. Sansom’s popular historical mystery novels and into a new show, bringing with him disability representation.

“We don’t see a lot of leading disabled characters,” says Arthur Hughes, who plays the title character. “Well, we might, but they might not be played by disabled actors.”

Shardlake is a clever lawyer who solves puzzles and problems during the reign of King Henry VIII. He is also disabled. The character is referred to as a “hunchback” by a rude rival in the books — an example of the attitude of the Tudor period, with no allowance or acceptance of differences.

“I really hope the disabled audience can see that and see maybe some of the parallels with the world we live in today. And also just to show that that a disabled actor can play a leading part,” says Hughes, who was born with radial dysplasia.

Joining him in the show are Anthony Boyle, as codpiece-wearing rogue Jack Barak, and Sean Bean portraying Thomas Cromwell, the notorious and real-life political player who sends Shardlake on a mission to solve a murder at a monastery. The show airs Wednesday on Disney+ in the U.K. and Hulu in the U.S.

The cast spoke to The Associated Press about the importance of casting, the comfort of a codpiece and coldness of old castles. The interview was conducted before Sansom’s death Saturday at 71. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

AP: So who read the books?

BEAN: I read the first three but a long time ago. Forty years or so.

AP: Was the appeal that you already knew this world?

BEAN: Yes, when I found out it was based on C.J. Sansom’s books, I thought, I’ve read those, you know. It was something I really wanted to be involved with and when I was offered the role of Cromwell, (I was) delighted.

AP: Shardlake himself, he’s a great role.

HUGHES: It was a really, really enjoyable role. He’s a complicated guy. Kind of strong but vulnerable and compromised in many ways within himself, within the job he’s got. But I think, ultimately, a really good, just man. And a great story to go through and an interesting world to navigate. It was a lot of fun. We had a ball.

AP: He’s also a very cool character.

HUGHES: Yeah, I found reading the books, he’s a very interesting character, but there’s something a little weak and afraid and meek in him and actually, I wanted him to be stronger and stoic. Still vulnerable and lonely and isolated and maybe somewhat awkward, but I wanted him to have a kind of inner strength. This is a disabled man navigating a really difficult world for him and I think he’ll need that kind of inner strength burning inside him.

AP: Codpiece.

BOYLE: Yes, let’s talk about it. It’s something.

AP: Was it comfortable?

BOYLE: I sort of had to go to myself — this is the leather jacket of the era. It was like getting your codpiece on and going out, like, this looks all right. Once I got over that hurdle, I loved it and I actually felt a bit naked without it. So I did take one from set. It’s in the wardrobe. I’m hoping if the show does well, people will watch it and it will be the new sort of fashion statement this summer. You know, everyone’s knocking about with codpieces.

AP: You’ve been jumping around historical periods quite a lot recently.

BOYLE: Someone said to me, I’ve done so many period dramas, it looks like I’ve got a face that just can’t comprehend the internet. And they just keep putting me in these sort of random period dramas because I look like I don’t know how to work Deliveroo.

HUGHES: That’s brilliant.

AP: Thomas Cromwell is a really interesting historical figure — what was your take on him?

BEAN: I’m not sure I quite liked him, but I admired his resolute character. He’s very headstrong and very, very sure about himself, about what he was doing. But he obviously takes a lot of pleasure in the dissolution of the monasteries and the robbing and everything that goes on changing the religion completely, to accommodate Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. And he sees Shardlake, he knows he’s a very intelligent, very gifted man and it’s an interesting relationship that we have.

AP: There was talk about doing something with this before, but with an able bodied actor. How important is it for you that Shardlake is represented properly?

HUGHES: I think having those leading roles, especially in this Tudor world that Shardlake lives in, which is built in ableism every day, but which is backed up by God and by everything that everyone’s taught. And also to show that that a disabled actor can play a leading part. And he’s written as a disabled man and even some of the smallest things about growing up a bit different, looking different — Shardlake will feel all those things and I’ve felt those things. Maybe I don’t have to kind of manufacture that so much.

AP: What was it like filming the 16th century? It looks really cold.

BOYLE: It was very cold. We were up there in freezing Budapest and I was wearing tights and a codpiece. All I can remember from the whole shoot, how cold it was. I remember riding horses, which was a laugh. We had a good fun on those didn’t we?

HUGHES: We did.

BOYLE: It was a good craic. Riding into Scarnsea on the back of these horses. The sets were amazing. It really did make you feel like you were in that time period. Looking round you didn’t really have to act that much because it was 360. We were on set. We were in the muck. We filmed these amazing locations, these castles and monasteries. And you didn’t have to do much thinking, you were just in it.

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